Somerville second U.S. city to ban public biometric facial recognition

Somerville, Massachusetts has banned the use of biometric facial recognition by any city department or agency with a unanimous vote by City Council, over concerns about the disparity of accuracy when identifying people of color, and women and young people in particular, GovTech reports.

Councillors spent several hours discussing how the ban should be enforced, and introduced an amendment which bars the use of any data collected with facial recognition technology from being used in municipal proceedings, and allows residents to sue for damages of $100 per violation or at least $1000 total, whichever is higher, according to the report. The ordinance also includes a provision allowing for state or federal law to impose more restrictions.

“I think it’s a small step, but it’s like a reminder that we are in charge of our own society, and the community activists, the government working together, can actually shape this stuff,” says City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen. “We don’t have to sit down and take it.”

Ewen-Campen introduced the ordinance, which was written in cooperation with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and makes Somerville the second city in the U.S. to do so, following San Francisco’s controversial decision in May. The Somerville ban was reported at that time to have the backing of 9 out of 11 Councillors.

“There is just this feeling that this technological change in our society is just inevitable and … there’s just an onslaught of privacy invasions,” Ewen-Campen told GovTech.

The U.S. federal government and the EU have both made initial moves towards limiting or regulating public facial recognition deployments.

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