SOMERVILLE, Mass. — The city of Somerville wants to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies, reflecting a growing backlash against the technology.
Advocates of the ban say allowing municipalities and police to use facial recognition tech is akin to forcing all residents to wear ID badges whenever they walk down the street.
The proposal last week received support from the majority of Somerville's city councilors.
When it comes to this technology, the two main concerns are; personal privacy and bias toward racial minorities.
According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, studies show facial recognition tech misidentifies people of color at a much higher rate.
But Somerville's leaders aren't the only ones concerned: the state's senate majority leader has proposed a moratorium on facial recognition software by the government. The ban would stay in place until regulations about the use of the emerging technology were put in place.
Government agencies around the U.S. have used the technology for more than a decade to scan databases for suspects and prevent identity fraud. But recent advances in artificial intelligence have created more sophisticated computer vision tools, making it easier for police to pinpoint a missing child or protester in a moving crowd or for retailers to analyze a shopper's facial expressions as they peruse store shelves.
Efforts to restrict its use are getting pushback from law enforcement groups and the tech industry, though it's far from a united front. Microsoft, while opposed to an outright ban, has urged lawmakers to set limits on the technology, warning that leaving it unchecked could enable an oppressive dystopia reminiscent of George Orwell's novel "1984."
"Face recognition is one of those technologies that people get how creepy it is," said Alvaro Bedoya, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology. "It's not like cookies on a browser. There's something about this technology that really sets the hairs on the back of people's heads up."
Without regulations barring law enforcement from accessing driver's license databases, people who have never been arrested could be part of virtual police line-ups without their knowledge, skeptics of the technology say.
They worry people will one day not be able to go to a park, store or school without being identified and tracked.
Already, a handful of big box stores across the U.S. are trying out cameras with facial recognition that can guess their customers' age, gender or mood as they walk by, with the goal of showing them targeted, real-time ads on in-store video screens.
Legislation banning facial recognition has also been introduced in San Francisco and Oakland.
If San Francisco adopts a ban, other cities, states or even Congress could follow, with lawmakers from both parties looking to curtail government surveillance and others hoping to restrict how businesses analyze the faces, emotions and gaits of an unsuspecting public.
Bedoya said a ban in San Francisco, the "most technologically advanced city in our country," would send a warning to other police departments thinking of trying out the imperfect technology. But Daniel Castro, vice president of the industry-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the ordinance is too extreme to serve as a model.
"It might find success in San Francisco, but I will be surprised if it finds success in a lot of other cities," he said.
San Francisco is home to tech innovators such as Uber, Airbnb and Twitter, but the city's relationship with the industry is testy. Some supervisors in City Hall are calling for a tax on stock-based compensation in response to a wave of San Francisco companies going public, including Lyft and Pinterest.
At the same time, San Francisco is big on protecting immigrants, civil liberties and privacy. In November, nearly 60 percent of voters approved a proposition to strengthen data privacy guidelines.
The city's proposed face-recognition ban is part of broader legislation aimed at regulating the use of surveillance by city departments. The legislation applies only to San Francisco government and would not affect companies or people who want to use the technology. It also would not affect the use of facial recognition at San Francisco International Airport, where security is mostly overseen by federal agencies.
"Our point of view is, rather than a blanket ban forever, why not a moratorium so we're not using problematic technology, but we open the door for when technology improves?" said Joel Engardio, vice president of grassroots group Stop Crime SF.
Such a moratorium is under consideration in the Massachusetts Legislature, where it has the backing of Republican and Democratic senators.
Often, a government's facial recognition efforts happen in secret or go unnoticed. In Massachusetts, the motor vehicle registry has used the technology since 2006 to prevent driver's license fraud, and some police agencies have used it as a tool for detectives.
"It is technology we use," said Massachusetts State Police Lt. Tom Ryan, adding that "we tend not to get too involved in publicizing" that fact. Ryan and the agency declined to answer further questions about how it's used.
Massachusetts Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Democrat and sponsor of the moratorium bill, said she worries about a lack of standards protecting the public from inaccurate or biased facial recognition technology. Until better guidelines exist, she said, "it shouldn't be used" by the government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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