Cambridge bans facial recognition technology, becoming fourth community in Massachusetts to do so

By Jackson Cote | jcote@masslive.com

The Cambridge City Council voted Monday night to ban the municipal use of facial recognition technology, becoming the fourth community in the state to do so, the ACLU of Massachusetts announced.

Brookline, Northampton and Somerville have already passed similar bans, and the Springfield City Council took its first steps Monday night to restrict the use of the software as well.

A bill before the State House would also establish a statewide moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric surveillance, including the analysis of a person’s gait or voice, until the legislature regulates the software.

“Cambridge joins a small but growing number of cities who are stepping up to protect residents from intrusive and undemocratic technology,” Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern, former mayor of the city, said in a tweet.

Proponents of legislation banning the use of facial recognition technology at the state or municipal level argue privacy laws have not caught up with the software, as regulation at the state and federal level of biometric surveillance is nonexistent.

They also say the software is inaccurate and biased when it comes to factors of age, gender and race. In the proposed statewide moratorium, legislators wrote that many of the databases that use facial recognition technology “are plagued by racial disparities and other biases.”

“Face recognition technology has a history of being far less accurate in identifying the faces of women, young people, and dark skinned people,” the bill states. “Such inaccuracies lead to harmful 'false positive’ identifications.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts launched a campaign in June called “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” that aims to make the public more aware of the alleged dangers of face surveillance and the need for a statewide moratorium on its use, according to the organization’s statement.

A poll conducted by the Beacon Research and released by the ACLU in June showed nearly eight in 10 Massachusetts residents support a moratorium on government use of the technology, the statement said.

“Privacy laws have not kept pace with advancements of digital technology," said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “But Massachusetts cities and towns are stepping up to ensure that face surveillance technology doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.”

Related content: