Massachusetts is set to become the first state to ban the public use of facial recognition technology. To that end, both houses of the state legislature have now passed a sweeping police reform bill that would bar the use of biometric surveillance systems.
The ban would extend to police departments and other public agencies. However, the police would be able to obtain a warrant to conduct a facial recognition search during an investigation, using the state’s driver’s license database to try to identify a suspect. The state would need to disclose the total number of such searches in the interest of transparency.
The Massachusetts Senate passed the bill with a 28-12 margin, while the House of Representatives voted 92-67. Governor Charlie Baker still needs to sign the bill to make the law official. The bill itself is a response to the anti-police brutality protests that swept the country following the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year. It bans the use of chokeholds and rubber bullets in addition to facial recognition, and places restrictions on no-knock warrants and the use of tear gas and other chemical agents.
It also establishes a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission that has the authority to decertify officers who exhibit bias while on the job. Decertified officers would have limited qualified immunity protections, though they would still enjoy some protections because the law does not do away with the qualified immunity standard that shields officers from prosecution.
The law would nevertheless give Massachusetts one of the most far-reaching facial recognition policies in the country. The state has proven to be a hotbed for facial recognition legislation, with seven jurisdictions – including Somerville, Brookline, Cambridge, and Boston – having already enacted bans at the municipal level. The new law would extend those protections across the state as privacy advocates continue to raise awareness about the technology.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey has also been an outspoken critic of facial recognition. The legislator has repeatedly gone after Clearview AI to ask the controversial start-up to be more transparent about its operations.
December 2, 2020 – by Eric Weiss