BOSTON — The city council voted to ban police and other city agencies from using using facial- surveillance technology. If Boston Mayor Marty Walsh approves the vote, Boston will join five other communities in Massachusetts, including Brookline, Somerville and Cambridge who have enacted similar bans and become one of the largest cities in the states to do so.
“Although there is good reason to ban this technology right now because it’s unreliable, going forward we have to also to consider whether just because something is possible, whether it’s the right thing to do,” Councilor Liz Breadon, of District 9 said before the councilors voted Wednesday. “Even if there’s significant improvements in technology, surveilling the population at large and doing facial recognition is not necessarily the way we want to go.”
Boston City Councilors voted unanimously to ban the use of the technology — except for specific criminal investigations. The proposal also bans the city from buying data from companies that might use the technology.
Municipalities and activists across the country have criticized the technology for being unreliable, especially in matching racial minorities. The police department officials in Boston told council members it has not used facial-surveillance technology for that reason.
“This is a present issue, it’s one that is real,” said Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, a co-sponsor of the proposal along with District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo who worked with the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and advocates on it.
The ACLU is lobbying state lawmakers to also get a bill pending in the joint judiciary committee passed that would put a moratorium on face recognition systems.
“To effectively address police abuses and systemic racism, we must address the tools that exacerbate those long-standing crises,” said ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose in a statement. “Face surveillance supercharges the policing of Black and brown communities and tramples on everyone’s rights to anonymity and privacy.”
The vote comes before the police department upgrades the city camera network. That upgrade is set to include a facial-recognition capability, but the department has said it would keep that element turned off. The ban would not impede investigations that use video surveillance, just technology that could zoom in on a face and run that image through other software, according to councilors.
Councilor Kenzie Bok, of District 8, cautioned although it’s easy for the councilors to focus on the nuance of how the technology works, the proposal is a reminder to keep civil liberties in mind.
“Let’s not live in a society where we are constantly surveying each other’s faces, and we just decide it’s a normal thing for us to be able to track where everyone is going all the time,” she said during the meeting.“We really have a tendency in this country to let our tech go ahead of our commen sense about how we want to live together, that’s why to me this is such a critical intervention to be making at this moment.”