Blog by Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty Program

Facial recognition systems are computer programs designed to analyze images of human faces to identify and track people at a distance, without their knowledge or consent. Behind closed doors, face surveillance companies are preying on our local governments, trying to use our families and communities as guinea pigs for their private financial gain. Private companies marketing this technology to government agencies boast that it can monitor people in real-time, reconstruct past movements from video footage, and uniquely identify hundreds of individuals from a single photo.

Face surveillance technology gives the government unprecedented power to track who we are, where we go, what we do, and who we know. But in tech hubs from San Francisco to Somerville, the ACLU is fighting back—and we are winning.

Last month, our colleagues in San Francisco were instrumental in passing the nation’s first face surveillance ban, blocking government agencies from using the technology. Here in Massachusetts, we are working with Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen and his colleagues to do the same. And on Beacon Hill, we are taking action to make sure that no matter where you live in the Bay State, technology like face surveillance doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.

Legislation introduced by Senator Cindy Creem and Representative Dave Rogers would place a moratorium on state and local government’s use of face recognition and other “at-a-distance” biometric surveillance technologies, like iris, voice, and gait recognition. If enacted, the moratorium would remain in place until the state legislature passes a law authorizing specific uses, and protecting racial and gender justice, due process, privacy, and free speech.

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It’s not a surprise that the nation’s first face surveillance ban was enacted in Silicon Valley, the heart of the nation’s technology industry. After all, the people who build systems like face surveillance know how powerful and dangerous they are, especially in the absence of government regulation.

We are confident we will be able to pass bans in our own tech strongholds here in Massachusetts. And emails obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts show we need to do it fast.

In explosive emails published on the ACLU’s Data for Justice website, a CEO of a Massachusetts-based face surveillance start-up acknowledges his technology might only work 30 percent of the time, but nonetheless aggressively pushes its adoption in schools, government buildings, and public streets—all in secret, with no public debate or buy-in from elected officials.

The emails reveal Suspect Technologies, a start-up funded by billionaire Mark Cuban, has been aggressively pushing face surveillance technology on the police department in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a South Shore town home to approximately 60,000 people, for over two years—all in secret. The documents are a chilling wake up call for lawmakers in Massachusetts, where the government’s use of the controversial—and too often inaccurate—technology has gone largely under the radar.

The CEO of Cambridge-based Suspect Technologies, Jacob Sniff, worked relentlessly over a period of more than two years to get Plymouth Police Department Chief Michael Botieri to adopt his face surveillance technology, despite the fact that the town government and public were apparently kept entirely in the dark about the plans. The emails show Sniff sought access to the state’s drivers license database to train his private algorithm, and asked the Plymouth Police Chief for access to video footage of people in Plymouth, so he could use the video to develop his technology.

The emails show Suspect Technologies and the Plymouth Police planned to use face surveillance tech in schools and other public buildings, absent any public debate or democratic oversight. When the ACLU found out about the plans and informed journalists, the police appeared to back away from them.

The use of these technologies is particularly dangerous for women and people of color. Numerous studies have shown that face surveillance technologies are inherently racially biased, particularly against Black women. MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini found that Black women were 35 percent more likely to be misidentified by the technology than white men. 

In light of these concerns, last month the House Oversight Committee held a hearing in Congress, during which advocates described how the technology is spreading, under cover of secrecy, throughout state and local government nationwide. In Detroit and Chicago, an expert testified, local governments have begun using real-time face surveillance on the thousands of surveillance cameras controlled by police in those cities. This is happening despite the fact that neither Michigan nor Illinois legislators authorized its use, and that there are no statutory protections to ensure people’s rights are safeguarded in this brave new digital world.

During his testimony at that hearing, law professor Andrew Ferguson warned that waiting around for Constitutional violations and court remedies won’t save us from digital dystopia.

"The Fourth Amendment will not save us from the privacy threat,” Professor Ferguson said. “The Supreme Court is making solid strides in trying to update Fourth Amendment principles in the face of these new technologies, but they’re chasing an accelerating train and will not catch up. Only legislation can respond to the real-time threats of real-time technology.”

We agree. It’s time for the Massachusetts state legislature to #PressPause on the use of this dangerous technology. Take action today to join the movement to protect our rights in the digital age. Sign our petition, and share it with five of your friends.

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