Open Letter to the Boston City Council: Privacy Concerns about Boston’s Facial Recognition Ban

By Joe Cadillic, writer/editor of the MassPrivatel Blog and Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director

The first part of today’s NMA Street Surveillance Watch Blog first appeared on Joe’s MassPrivatel Blog on July 14, 12020.

Open letter to the Boston City Council: Privacy Concerns about Boston’s Facial Recognition Ban.

I commend the Boston City Council for unanimously passing a ban on the use of facial recognition technology by any agency under the City of Boston’s authority. The actions taken by the City Council are the first step in reducing racial discrimination and misidentification by the Boston Police Department and other City agencies.

While the ordinance bans city officials from using facial recognition obtained by non-city agencies, it does allow the Boston Police Department to use information by other third-party agencies. This creates a loophole for city agencies to rely on non-government entities to collect data using facial recognition surveillance programs and still be compliant with the ordinance.

Any city agency can request the data from these third party companies and still be in accordance with the law. This ordinance does not have a check and balance system on requests by city agencies, such as the Boston Police Department, to private companies and organizations such as Massachusetts General Hospital, which are allowed to implement facial recognition within the City of Boston. Without any oversight or understanding of how they are planning on using this technology, it undermines the actions of this Council.

The citywide ban on facial recognition should include language on how sports stadiums such as Fenway Park, the TD Garden, and retail stores like Home Depot, Macy’s, Best Buy, and Kohl’s can use facial recognition software and require these entities to disclose the use of it to the public.

Additional language should include any penalties businesses could face for ignoring a citywide ban on facial recognition, which could go as far as denying permits within the city.

A citywide ban on facial recognition must also include specific reasons for obtaining information from MBTA buses and trains, which use DHS-funded surveillance cameras within the boundaries of Boston. Minorities using public transportation should not have to worry about being racially profiled by the MBTA police and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.

The citywide ban on facial recognition is great news for Boston residents, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

A recent article in One Zero outlines Portland, Oregon’s facial recognition ban that goes the extra mile by banning facial recognition at public transit stations, restaurants, entertainment venues, and Airbnb’s.

“The law would prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies at stores, banks, Airbnb rentals, restaurants, entertainment venues, public transit stations, homeless shelters, senior centers, services like law or doctors’ offices, and a variety of other types of businesses. And it would allow people to sue non-compliant private entities for damages.”

Portland’s ban on facial recognition goes further than any other city council ban. Hector Dominguez, open data coordinator at Smart City PDX, the city’s data equity advisory group that oversaw the drafting of the facial recognition ordinances, said recently, “From our knowledge, Portland is the first city that proposes regulation of private use of face recognition technologies.”

Portland’s two bills banning facial recognition will hopefully serve as a model for other cities and towns. If passed, both bills would outlaw the use of facial recognition by government bureaus, including law enforcement. The city would also establish a new chapter of city code prohibiting private entities from using facial recognition.

Boston has taken the first step in banning government facial recognition. It is my hope the Boston City Council will consider expanding their facial recognition ban to include other entities.

The discussion on the use of facial recognition devices dominated the news over the past several weeks.

US Lawmakers introduced legislation that would ban the government from using facial recognition technologies. Nearly 40 groups came out in support of banning facial recognition and stated that it was a threat to our privacy and civil liberties.

The New Orleans city council announced that they are considering an ordinance to ban facial recognition and create a public review and approval process for all surveillance technology.

In Michigan, a man was misidentified as a suspect using facial recognition, and many media stories were generated in the aftermath:

Also, many opinion pieces were generated recently on the idea of Facial Recognition.

Street Surveillance reporting is ramping up, which is something both Joe and I are glad to see. Here are some other stories that might be of interest:

Amazon Ring Neighborhood Surveillance

Automated License Plate Readers

COVID-19 Crisis Contact Tracing

Police Body Cams

And here are seven other important street surveillances stories of interest:

Joe also has posted the following recently at his MassPrivatel Blog.

If you would like to keep track of the many issues currently involved in street surveillance, check out Joe’s blog called MassPrivatel. Also, take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily, a five times per week email.

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