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August 28, 2019

MassLive: ‘It’s untested, biased’: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Somerville officials make the case for facial recognition ban in Massachusetts

Steps away from Somerville public housing, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and local mayors vowed not to let the neighborhood become equipped with facial recognition technology.

“This technology is untested, biased and would only criminalize vulnerable communities and result in greater surveillance and racial profiling,” said Pressley, who joined elected officials from Somerville and Cambridge Tuesday at a community event about facial recognition

What began as a petition from Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, has grown into a campaign to put the brakes on an emerging technology that yields inaccurate results, especially for women and people of color.

The coalition of Massachusetts politicians are pushing for an outright ban, arguing the surveillance infringes on people’s right to privacy and will be used to discriminate against poor, minority communities.

A Brooklyn apartment building made national headlines in May when tenants learned the management planned to install facial recognition technology. The tenants of Atlantic Plaza Towers in Brownsville fought back, arguing the plan puts their privacy at risk.

Pressley joined Congresswomen Yvette Clarke and Rashida Tlaib, all Democrats, in proposing a bill that would ban the use of biometric recognition technology in most public and assisted housing units funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Massachusetts, the federal legislation marks the latest of several steps elected officials have taken to curb government use of the technology.

The Somerville City Council passed an ordinance banning city use of the technology in June, becoming the second known U.S. city, after San Francisco, to do so. The Cambridge City Council, which requires prior approval to implement the technology, is considering an outright ban.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern said Tuesday that they haven’t seen any examples of facial recognition being implemented in the Greater Boston area, but they want to preemptively curb government surveillance.

Concerned about privacy risks and racial profiling, the ACLU tested Amazon’s Rekognition software on members of Congress in 2018. The software incorrectly identified 28 member of Congress — many of them people of color — as people who have been arrested for a crime. The Congressional Black Caucus expressed its concerns in a May 24, 2018 letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Ewen-Campen launched an online petition earlier this year online calling for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition software. The petition got a little over 200 signatures, but it was the first sign of Somerville’s government taking an interest in the privacy debate.

“A cliche we often hear is that the technology is four steps ahead of the government,” Ewen-Campen said Wednesday. “Despite the fact that it might not be happening yet here, we’re not comfortable with the fact that the technology gets so far.”

Ewen-Campen worked with the ACLU attorney Emiliano Falcon to draft an ordinance. The proposal passed unanimously.

The ACLU of Massachusetts is also pushing Beacon Hill legislators to call a moratorium on the technology and has backed legislation by state Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. David Rogers calling for regulations.

The ACLU sued the state in July to obtain information on how the Department of Transportation uses its driver’s license database when it comes to facial surveillance.

The ACLU said it filed public records requests in February and April seeking more information about the database, but that MassDOT hasn’t responded.

The transportation department issued a statement Wednesday saying the registry “cooperates with law enforcement on specific case by case queries related to criminal investigations, but does not provide system access to federal authorities and is not negotiating to do so,” the Associated Press reported.