Open Letter to the Boston City Council: Privacy Concerns About Boston’s Facial Recognition Ban

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credit: Tenth Amendment Center

Open letter to the Boston City Council: Privacy concerns about Boston’s facial recognition ban.

I commend the Boston City Council for unanimously passing a ban on the use of facial recognition technology by any agency under the City of Boston’s authority.  The actions taken by the City Council are the first step in reducing racial discrimination and misidentification by the Boston Police Department and other City agencies.

While the ordinance bans city officials from using facial recognition obtained by non-city agencies, it does allow the Boston Police Department to use information by other third-party agencies.  This creates a loophole for city agencies to rely on non-government entities to collect data using facial recognition surveillance programs and still be compliant with the ordinance.

Any city agency can request the data from these third party companies and still be in accordance with the law.  This ordinance does not have a checks and balance system on requests by city agencies, such as the Boston Police Department, to private companies and organizations [Massachusetts General Hospital] which are allowed to implement facial recognition within the City of Boston.  Without any oversight or understanding of how they are planning on using this technology, it undermines the actions of this Council.

The city-wide ban on facial recognition should include language on how sports stadiums like Fenway Park, the TD Garden and retail stores like Home Depot, Macy’s, Best Buy and Kohl’s can use facial recognition software, and require these entities to disclose the use of it to the public. Additional language should include any penalties businesses could face for ignoring a citywide ban on facial recognition, which could go as far as denying permits within the City.

A city-wide ban on facial recognition must also include specific reasons for obtaining information from MBTA buses and trains who use DHS-funded surveillance cameras within the boundaries of Boston. Minorities using public transportation should not have to worry about being racially profiled by the MBTA police and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.

The city-wide ban on facial recognition is great news for Boston residents, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

A recent article in One Zero about Portland, Oregon’s facial recognition ban goes the extra mile by banning facial recognition at public transit stations, restaurants, entertainment venues and Airbnb’s.
“The law would prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies at stores, banks, Airbnb rentals, restaurants, entertainment venues, public transit stations, homeless shelters, senior centers, services like law or doctors’ offices, and a variety of other types of businesses. And it would allow people to sue noncompliant private entities for damages.”Portland’s ban on facial recognition goes further than any other city council ban.
“From our knowledge, Portland is the first city that proposes a regulation of private use of face recognition technologies,” Hector Dominguez, open data coordinator at Smart City PDX, the city’s data equity advisory group overseeing drafting of the facial recognition ordinances said.Portland’s two bills banning facial recognition will hopefully serve as a model for other cities and towns. If passed, both bills would outlaw the use of facial recognition by government bureaus, including law enforcement, and would establish a new chapter of city code prohibiting private entities from using facial recognition.

Boston has taken the first step in banning government facial recognition.  It is my hope the Boston City Council will consider expanding their facial recognition ban to include other entities.