Face Recognition and Biometric Surveillance

In recent years, there have been growing concerns about how we can balance the need for enhanced security to keep communities safe, while at the same time protecting privacy and freedom. Americans are becoming increasingly worried about how developing biometric facial technologies intended to screen, identify and surveil people from a distance may violate the privacy people expect in a free society. In Massachusetts, it has recently come to light that law enforcement has been using this technology for the past few years without legislative approval. While it is understandable why law enforcement sees the value of facial recognition technology, there are a vast amount of possible inaccuracies and miscalculations that come along with adopting and implementing this technology. Our privacy should be protected and technologies like this allow our government to track who we are, where we go, what we do and with whom we choose to associate which violates our expectation of privacy. Our state law must catch up with this technology.

For this reason, I filed H.1538 – An Act Relative to Unregulated Face Recognition and Emerging Biometric Surveillance Technologies. This bill would establish a moratorium on unregulated government use of face recognition and other biometric monitoring technologies. Our state should “press pause” on the usage of this technology until we identify how to properly regulate and utilize it in our society in a manner that protects citizens’ privacy. I worked with the ACLU to craft this legislation. They recently conducted a poll which indicates that 79% of Massachusetts voters including Democrats, Independents and Republicans are in favor of legislation that would establish a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance and other remote biometric tracking technologies in Massachusetts. A moratorium would stop government agencies in Massachusetts from using face, voice, and gait (how an individual walks) recognition until policymakers have identified and agreed upon legislation and/or regulations that would protect individual privacy. These regulations are necessary for ensuring this technology does not infringe upon our rights and civil liberties.

The New York Times recently broke a story about how biometric technology is being used by federal immigration authorities. They use it to scan state drivers’ license databases, including the photos and records of citizens who are not suspected of any civil or criminal violation. Needless to say, it is another reminder that we need to have much more precise guidelines on when and how the use of this technology is permissible. This system leaves room for both human and technological errors, which can lead to wrongful incarcerations, unwarranted police stops and diverted travel plans.

Approximately 117 million American adults are already in face recognition systems operated under law enforcement networks. Disturbingly, the algorithm central to this technology is least accurate when analyzing images of  women and people of color. In fact, face surveillance technology is inaccurate when identifying not only women, but specifically women with darker skin tones. Research has shown that black women are up to 35% more likely to be mistaken for another individual in the photosystem than white men. Additionally, black males have a higher chance of being targeted because of inconsistent representation in mugshot databases. The technology not only has the ability to identify and monitor a person from a digital photo, but also through video and voice tracking. A 2019 survey done by Beacon Research on facial surveillance found that 73% of participants were more concerned than optimistic about potential real-time tracking. 

In the wrong hands, facial recognition provides the government with unprecedented power to target religious and marginalized minorities with little to no effort. It has the ability to instantly identify who you are, with whom you’ve associated and even the expression on your face. Not only is this an invasive practice that unfairly profiles people, but it is also a violation of our First Amendment rights. We know that these technologies are vastly misused in authoritarian countries such as China. History shows that surveillance technologies have often been used against people of color and immigrants.

Recently, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) after MassDOT failed to release information pertaining to how the agency uses and shares state drivers’ license data for face surveillance purposes. Currently local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have access to the MassDOT database of drivers’ license photos. This is cause for significant concern because the database includes photographs of every person in the state with a state-issued ID. Because we know even the best technology available today can be faulty, this could implicate literally anyone when police submit a photo to MassDOT for identification in the process of conducting an investigation.

San Francisco was the first major American city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the police and other local government agencies. On a local level, Somerville, Massachusetts has also passed similar legislation to ban facial surveillance technology while using San Francisco as its model, becoming the first community to do so not only in Massachusetts but on the east coast. Just recently, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced a bill banning facial recognition from public housing. Facial recognition technology is developing at a fast pace and the law is not keeping up. At a minimum, the moratorium will ease the concerns of civilians and allow our government to conduct the proper research required in order to understand this technology and implement it without encroaching on the privacy and freedom of citizens.

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Contact Dave

Please never hesitate to contact me for any reason.

Phone: 617-722-2637
Email: dave.rogers@mahouse.gov
Mail: State House Room 544, Boston, MA 02133