Advocates back new bill to further regulate the technology

The ACLU of Massachusetts today unveiled a database of public records showing widespread police use of face recognition technology in the Commonwealth. Live at the ACLU’s Data for Justice Project, the new database follows the introduction of a bill to impose checks and balances on government use of face recognition technology in Massachusetts.

The database contains over 1,400 public records obtained through more than 400 requests filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts. Among other insights into police use of face recognition technology, the public records show the extent to which the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) has allowed local, state, and federal agencies to access its face recognition system—absent any external oversight. The documents also show that Massachusetts police and prosecutors have been using this technology in investigations for years. Troublingly, however, law enforcement has largely failed to disclose the existence of evidence derived from face recognition to defense attorneys and defendants, raising serious due process concerns.

“These records make clear that government officials have been using face recognition technology for years, in secret and without any democratic oversight,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Our state has taken a first step toward reining in this dystopian technology, but Massachusetts must do more to ensure all residents are free from the threat of pervasive government tracking every time we leave our homes.”

In 2020, the Massachusetts legislature passed statewide regulations on police use of face recognition technology. Under current law, police may request face recognition searches at the State Police, RMV, and FBI with a court order, or use the technology without judicial approval in emergencies. The law also establishes a commission to explore more stringent regulations on the government’s use of this technology. Current law does not sufficiently protect racial justice, privacy, due process, or civil liberties.

The new proposal, introduced last month by Senator Cynthia Creem and Representatives Dave Rogers and Orlando Ramos, would further protect millions of people from this intrusive, racially-biased technology. The new language would prohibit government agencies from obtaining face surveillance technology that enables them to track or monitor every person’s activities in public places. It would also raise the standard for law enforcement use of the technology for image matching purposes, requiring police to obtain a warrant before conducting a face recognition search, except in emergencies. Finally, the proposed bill would establish due process protections for people who are identified using face recognition, protecting individual rights and the integrity of the criminal legal system.

“Study after study has confirmed that face recognition technology is flawed, with significantly highly error rates when used against people of color and women,” said Kade Crockford. “This bias isn’t just theoretical: Multiple Black men have been wrongfully arrested based on face recognition searches. Massachusetts has established baseline protections for police use of this technology, but the existing law does not sufficiently protect individual rights or the public interest. We look forward to continued collaboration with our partners and the state legislature to enact strong law to protect racial justice and civil rights in the digital age, on behalf of all of us and future generations.”

The ACLU is leading a nationwide movement to defend privacy rights and civil liberties against the growing threat of face recognition surveillance. In 2019, the ACLU of Massachusetts launched “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” to build awareness about the civil liberties concerns posed by face surveillance and the need to bring government use of the technology under democratic control. The new legislative proposal marks a second phase of the ACLU of Massachusetts campaign, “Press Pause on Face Surveillance 2.0.”

Multiple localities have banned law enforcement use of face recognition technology as part of ACLU-led campaigns. In June 2020, the Boston City Council voted unanimously to ban the use of face surveillance by the municipal government, making Boston the second largest city in the country to enact such a ban. Boston is among seven Massachusetts communities to adopt model ACLU legislation banning the government’s use of face recognition.

For the public records, go to: