Worcester has become the eighth municipality in Massachusetts to bar government agencies from acquiring or using facial recognition technology.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to pass the ordinance, citing the technology’s documented flaws when it comes to identifying people of color as well as a desire to rebuild trust in the community. Worcester joins a growing list of cities to take this action, joining Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Easthampton, Northampton, Springfield and Somerville — as well as other major cities around the country, including San Francisco and New Orleans.
“The current technology has been shown to be inconsistent,” said Worcester City Councilor Khrystian King. “It’s been shown to disproportionately impact people of color, Black men and Black women in specificity. Perhaps in the future, as the technology improves, perhaps there’s a place for it.”
In a statement to GBH News, Worcester police said facial recognition technology is not something the department had any plans to implement.
King said councilors were not responding to any immediate plans to use facial recognition. He said the point of the ordinance, which was part of a series of reforms promoted by the city manager, was to send a message.
“The impetus really was trying to improve and enhance our public safety efforts. And communities of color and other segments of our community need to make sure that we rebuild trust. And one way you do that is make sure technology used is well vetted and has requisite oversight,” King said.
The ACLU of Massachusetts is fighting for just the kind of oversight that King is talking about.
“There are a lot of ways to get bad guys today,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We live in the golden era of surveillance for police. The crucial difference, though, between the cellphone that is commonplace in law enforcement now and the use of biometric identifiers to track everywhere we go and everything we do and everyone we associate with … is that I can leave my phone at home, but I can’t leave my face.”
And, Crockford said, police need to ask a judge for a warrant to prove that the information is needed. She said a facial recognition system would be entirely under the control of the police.
Crockford points to at least three recent cases in the United States where Black men were arrested based on being misidentified by facial recognition, and one case in Michigan where a 14-year-old Black girl was barred from a roller skating rink because recognition technology used by a private security company wrongly deemed her a safety risk.
The ACLU and other detractors concede there are areas where facial recognition can be effective. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, for example, has been using the technology since 2006 to combat identity fraud.
“Facial recognition is the most precise way to protect access to anything… There’s a chance in a million that somebody wrongfully gains access to whatever the facial recognition can protect,” said Richard Carriere, senior vice president …….