The US's Fight against Face Recognition: Can Massachusetts LeadA Breakthrough?
Category Technology Friday - July 21 2023, 22:58 UTC - 7 months ago In the US, the movement to regulate face recognition technology has largely come to a halt. Right now, the Massachusetts Legislature is attempting to enact a law limiting law enforcement's use of the technology. If they are able to pass the bill, it could set a standard for other US states to follow when it comes to regulating face recognition tech. Beyond the US, the technology is widely used in other countries for purposes such as identifying customers within retail stores.
Friday - July 21 2023, 22:58 UTC - 7 months ago
In the US, the movement to regulate face recognition technology has largely come to a halt. Right now, the Massachusetts Legislature is attempting to enact a law limiting law enforcement's use of the technology. If they are able to pass the bill, it could set a standard for other US states to follow when it comes to regulating face recognition tech. Beyond the US, the technology is widely used in other countries for purposes such as identifying customers within retail stores.
Just four years ago, the movement to ban police departments from using face recognition in the US was riding high. By the end of 2020, around 18 cities had enacted laws forbidding the police from adopting the technology. US lawmakers proposed a pause on the federal government’s use of the tech.
In the years since, that effort has slowed to a halt. Five municipal bans on police and government use passed in 2021, but none in 2022 or in 2023 so far, according to a database from the digital rights group Fight for the Future. Some local bans have even been partially repealed, and today, few seriously believe that a federal ban on police use of face recognition could pass in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, without legal limits on its use, the technology has only grown more ingrained in people’s day-to-day lives.
However, in Massachusetts there is hope for those who want to restrict police access to face recognition. The state’s lawmakers are currently thrashing out a bipartisan state bill that seeks to limit police use of the technology. Although it’s not a full ban, it would mean that only state police could use it, not all law enforcement agencies.
The bill, which could come to a vote imminently, may represent an unsatisfying compromise, both to police who want more freedom to use the technology and to activists who want it completely banned. But it represents a vital test of the prevailing mood around police use of these controversial tools.That’s because when it comes to regulating face recognition, few states are as important as Massachusetts. It has more municipal bans on the technology than any other state, and it’s an epicenter for civil liberty advocates, academics, and tech companies. For a movement in need of a breakthrough, a lot rides on whether this law gets passed.
Right now in the US, regulations on police use of face recognition are trapped in political gridlock. If a leader like Massachusetts can pass its bill, that could usher in a new age of compromise. It would be one of the strictest pieces of statewide legislation in the country and could set the standard for how face recognition is regulated elsewhere.On the other hand, if a vote is delayed or fails, it would be yet another sign that the movement is waning as the country moves on to other policy issues.
A history of advocacy .
Privacy advocates and public interest groups have long had concerns about the invasiveness of face recognition, which is pivotal to a growing suite of high-tech police surveillance tools. Many of those fears revolve around privacy: live video-based face recognition is seen as riskier than retroactive photo-based recognition because it can track people in real time.
Those worries reached a fever pitch in 2018 with the arrival of a bombshell: a privacy-shredding new product from a small company called Clearview AI.The very same year, evidence started to mount that the accuracy of face recognition tools varied by race and gender. A groundbreaking study out of MIT by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, called Gender Shades, showed that the technology is far less accurate at identifying people of color and women than it is with white men.
These extraordinary facts galvanized the movement to rein in unregulated government use of face recognition. Cities like Berkeley and San Francisco, both of which had engaged in lengthy public debates about the technology’s use, moved swiftly to pass bans in 2019. By the end of 2020, around 18 cities had enacted laws forbidding the police from using the tech, including some that forbade any government agency from using it.
Right now, the Massachusetts Legislature is looking to both strengthen existing municipal bans and create a statewide limitation on the use of facial recognition by law enforcement. Although the pending bill would not be a ban, it would impose restrictions designed to protect citizens’ civil liberties, and it includes measures like requiring a warrant for police use of the technology.
The 'Right to Know Act' is also currently moving through the Massachusetts legislature, and is designed to provide more transparency and oversight of the police use of face recognition tech. The bill would require officers to promptly inform people when they are using it, and it requires that the police department provide an annual report on the technology's use.
Looking Ahead .
Since 2019, facial recognition technology has been widely used in a variety of other countries and not just by law enforcement, but by private business for purposes such as identifying customers within retail stores. The trend is now years old and doesn't show signs of slowing down.
If the Massachusetts bill passes, it could provide a glimmer of hope for advocates who want to wind back the widespread use of face recognition technology, and could set a standard for other US states to follow when it comes to regulating the technology. Without regulations, the technology will continue to evolve and infiltrate further into people’s day-to-day lives. If lawmakers don’t act fast, they risk losing the chance to set any sort of meaningful limits on the technology before it's too late.