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Why Massachusetts is ground-zero for the fight against facial recognition

Eight cities in Massachusetts have banned facial recognition, making it a hot spot in the country.

 

Jake Pitre

Tech

Posted on Jan 28, 2022   Updated on Feb 2, 2022, 2:27 pm CST

Boston. Cambridge. Brookline. Worcester. Easthampston, Northampton, Springfield, Somerville.

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Cities and counties across Massachusetts have introduced bans or strict regulations on facial recognition technologies in recent years, making the state a hot spot of action as cities around the country enact their own laws due to an absence of legislation at the federal level.

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As the pandemic has increased the usage of the technology in a variety of ways over the past two years, scrutiny over who is using it and why has likewise ramped up. The use of the technology by police and government agencies has been particularly criticized. But the question remains: why is Massachusetts leading the charge in banning the technology? 

Critical and public attention toward facial recognition technology has intensified in recent years. A major milestone was the revelations in 2019 about Clearview AI and its collection of billions of images scraped from around the internet, a corporate maneuver intended to put the company ahead of its competition, with ethical (and even legal) constraints not considered.

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Since then, activists have stepped up their efforts to emphasize to citizens and politicians alike that our very notion of privacy is at stake. 

For instance, Fight for the Future, an organization of technologists and policy experts, launched its Ban Facial Recognition campaign, which includes a congressional scorecard for which representatives support facial recognition bans (Massachusetts has the most signed on, tied with Oregon). 

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Erica Darragh, the organization’s community manager, told the Daily Dot that the organization has had a number of successes, including their support for many city and state bans, securing the commitment of over 60 music festivals not to use the technology, and running a campaign to ban it on university campuses. 

However, “federal legislation banning facial recognition is the goal,” Darragh said.

The organization endorsed a bill introduced in 2020 (which was re-introduced in 2021) that would put a moratorium on the federal government’s use of the technology, as did the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the Daily Dot that this issue has been on their radar since the increase in surveillance that was seen in the United States after 9/11.

There was an early awareness at the time that a future will soon come “when algorithms get better and cheaper, where local police departments and other government agencies will be able to flip a switch and turn that data into a searchable archive of everyone’s whereabouts and habits based on biometric characteristics” Crockford said.

It was in 2018, as Amazon’s recognition system was being tested with police in Florida, that they realized “it’s happening now and right in front of us, and we need to do something about it because we didn’t see anyone else doing anything,” Crockford said.  

Alongside colleagues in California and Washington, Crockford determined that in terms of an endgame, “we decided we should try to ban government use of face recognition technology.”

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So far, this campaign has resulted in eight municipal bans in Massachusetts, alongside work at the state level. That includes a law requiring police to get a court order to use facial recognition for image-matching, which takes a face from surveillance footage found in the act of committing a crime and searches for matches from—most often—the state motor vehicle registry.

Even that one extra step of mandating a court order has made an impact.

“They’ve basically stopped using the technology,” Crockford said with a laugh.

Still, though, that law falls short in the ACLU’s eyes as it doesn’t apply to other government agencies. Moreover, Crockford points out, police routinely violate laws, and face little to no accountability, so it’s not the end of the fight. 

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The question of why Massachusetts in particular has been leading the charge on getting these bans passed is a complicated one, but Crockford has a number of ideas.

There is the hard work the ACLU and their partners have been doing. More than that, though, Crockford likens it to the famous Margaret Mead quote “that you should never doubt that a small, committed group of organized people can change the world.”

Plus, Massachusetts is a state where, like San Francisco, a lot of people who work in the tech industry live. These people, Crockford argues, understand the fallibility of this technology, and that “when they do work, they give the people that use them too much power.” 

“People don’t like the idea that government agencies could use technology that keeps a record of everywhere they go, or tracks their children at school,” Crockford said. “As we’ve had conversations with people throughout the state, from politicians to residents to police chiefs, essentially no one wants the government to use facial recognition in the way that China and Russia use it—even the cops agree with this.” 

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Whatever the reason, from the outside many city councilors and politicians in other states have taken notice.

Last year, King County, Washington councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored a bill banning facial recognition in that county.

In a statement, Kohl-Welles told the Daily Dot that wasn’t surprising that other states and municipalities were taking action “to ban this burgeoning, undeveloped and demonstrably dangerous technology.”

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“The hard truth is facial recognition technology is not perfect and the negative impacts of this technology being applied incorrectly can ruin lives—especially those in BIPOC, LGTBQ+ and other marginalized communities,” Kohl-Welles said.

Moreover, Kohl-Welles pointed out, we should ask ourselves if we would want this technology even if it worked perfectly: “Would we want that kind of surveillance prevalent in our world?” 

In the absence of the federal government passing a law, it seems clear that working on the local or state level is the way forward—and Massachusetts has embodied that.

“I’m not hopeful that the federal government is going to do what we want them to do on this issue,” Crockford said. “This is something that cuts across politics, so alongside the movement for Black lives and police abolition and defunding, the conversation about policing is changing and that creates a lot of space for our movement to come in and say we ought to ban facial recognition and not have people look at us like we’re crazy.” 

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*First Published: Jan 28, 2022, 7:00 am CST