Massachusetts City Bans Facial Recognition

The city council of Somerville, Massachusetts voted on Thursday, June 27, 2019 to ban the police from using facial recognition.

In doing so, Sommerville joined San Francisco in becoming the second U.S. city to outlaw the technology.

Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen was the chief sponsor of the “Face Surveillance Full Ban Ordinance.” 9 of Sommerville’s 11 City Councilors sponsored the legislation. It was ultimately passed by a 11-0 vote.

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Under the new law, facial recognition is recognized as the “functional equivalent of requiring every person to carry and display a personal photo identification card at all times.” It prohibits any “department, agency, bureau, and/or subordinate division of the City of Somerville” from using facial recognition software in public venues.

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On top of the ban on facial recognition software, this law bans the use of data or evidence gathered from facial recognition software systems during criminal investigations or legal proceedings.

In May, San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban facial recognition. The ACLU of Northern California deemed vote historic.

By passing this law, the city gave the community a seat at the table and acted decisively to protect its people from the growing danger of face recognition, a highly invasive technology that would have radically and massively expanded the government’s power to track and control people going about their daily lives. Supported by Bay Area voters, and a broad coalition of privacy, civil rights, and racial justice groups, this powerful measure will protect the safety and civil rights of all San Franciscans who deserve to live their lives without being targeted by dangerous high-tech surveillance. In the hands of the government, face surveillance would supercharge discriminatory policing, stifle civic engagement, and entangle people with ICE.

Similar measures are expected to be voted on by the Berkley City Council on July 9th and the Oakland City Council on July 16th.

These moves are great considering the vast number of surveillance tools that police departments have at their disposal. At the moment, law enforcement agencies can acquire this technology without any form of oversight. But it takes two to tango in this surveillance state game. The federal government helps institutionalize the surveillance state through grants and other funding programs, which allows them to keep their purchases “off the books.”

The ordinance passed in San Francisco at least creates some form of oversight that prevents law enforcement agencies from buying federal spy equipment at will and keeps these programs from spreading across the nation.

Being free from government intrusion is a fundamental civil liberty, and any kind of measures at the state level to combat them should be fully embraced.


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