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Facial biometrics rules passed for Pittsburgh police use, but may have little practical effect

Restrictions considered in Baltimore, Utah and Montreal, Detroit considers DataWorks contract renewal
Facial biometrics rules passed for Pittsburgh police use, but may have little practical effect

Police in Pittsburgh must now receive approval from City Council to purchase biometric facial recognition algorithms as well as predictive policing algorithms, after city councillors passed new legislation Tuesday, according to Public Source.

TribLIVE reports that Mayor Bill Peduto intends to sign the bill into law. The vote was eight to none, with one councillor abstaining.

When Pittsburgh City Council granted the bill preliminary approval last week, multiple councillors expressed support for further regulation of face biometrics.

Councilman Reverend Ricky Burgess voted for the bill, but referred to it as “irrelevant” and a “Pinocchio bill.”

“Right now, today, the City of Pittsburgh is using facial recognition through the state of Pennsylvania, and this bill does not stop it,” he said.

The state facial recognition service JNET is available to all police in the state, and matches photos against driver’s license photos, mugshots and other images. JNET use is unaffected by the bill. Court records show JNET was used to identify people who allegedly committed crimes during a Black Lives Matter protest in June.

Pittsburgh’s public safety director can authorize the use of facial recognition and other restricted technologies in emergency situations, for up to 90 days.

Concerns about police use of facial recognition are being fed by a steady drumbeat of media reports about its use in law enforcement, such as a Los Angeles Times article stating the LAPD has used the technology to conduct 29,817 searches from November 6, 2009 to September 11 of 2020, after denying it had records about the technology’s use. The Times also reports the LAPD has denied using facial biometrics during the same period.

More than 300 personnel with the LAPD have access to the software, according to the Times.

DataWorks is also the technology provider for the LAPD, and executive vice president and general manager Todd Pastorini says the company implemented algorithms from NEC, Rank One and Cognitec for the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System (LACRIS).

Quartz notes that bills introduced this year in California, Maryland, Idaho and South Dakota make use of the same kind of language around “meaningful human review” as the Washington law written by a Microsoft employee, suggesting that the oversight mechanism is hardly sufficient to ensure people’s rights are protected.

Biometric surveillance ban proposed in Baltimore

A Baltimore City Councillor is proposing a ban on facial recognition software for surveillance, Baltimore Brew reports.

Councillor Kristerfer Burnett introduced a bill which would not apply to authentication with facial recognition, such as is used in smartphones and biometric access control systems.

The 2018 study by MIT and Stanford University showing significant demographic disparities in facial recognition performance was cited by the councillor.

Council President Brandon M. Scott expressed support for the bill on social media, according to the report, suggesting that technology cannot solve all problems.

Detroit to vote on renewing DataWorks contract

Detroit City Council will vote next week on whether to renew its contract for police facial recognition software maintenance and support with DataWorks Plus amidst an atmosphere of racialized tension, according to The Detroit News.

The contract is worth $200,000, and would run through September, 2022 if approved.

Council members delayed the decision in July, saying the police department needed to engage with the public on the matter.

Advocates and citizens expressed worry about the further marginalization of racial minorities at a meeting of the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee. Detroit Police Captain Aric Tosqui said at the meeting that the force has held multiple community engagement sessions about its use of facial recognition before the COVID-19 outbreak and since via Zoom.

Detroit originally contracted facial biometrics with two year-long million-dollar contract starting in 2017. The force owns the software, but needs support and maintenance to be contracted out.

Interestingly, The Detroit News refers to the recent NIST testing on demographic disparity by noting that leading algorithms were found more than 99 percent accurate with high-quality images, where consumer publications often mention only the worst-performing algorithms, which are not used by police.

Tosqui says Detroit Police now have a “strict policy” in place to only use facial biometric technology in violent crime cases after police misconduct resulted in the arrest of a Black man earlier this year, with officers blaming “the computer.” The force revised its policy last year, removing a policy allowing real-time identification in the case of a terrorist threat and imposing penalties for police who misuse the system.

Police say the technology has been used 105 times this year, returning 62 matches.

Utah makes policy changes, no legislation so far

Facial recognition search requests in Utah are now run through the Utah Criminal Justice Information Service system, which keeps a log of all requests, Department of Public Safety Chief Special Agent Major Brian Redd told a state legislative committee.

The Deseret News says each request must now also include a criminal case number, a statement of need and supervisor approval.

The changes come despite a bill proposed to limit the use of facial recognition by police in the state did not receive an initial hearing from lawmakers.

A former practice in which multiple possible matches were returned to officers has been replaced by returning only the top match, or none at all. Redd also says the state’s software was recently updated, and analysts are being trained to screen for bias.

Advocates pointed out that the biometric technology is still unregulated in the state, and called for formal rules.

Restrictions to be proposed to Montreal council

A Montreal councillor is planning to introduce a motion to restrict the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies by the city’s police, the National Post writes.

Support for the proposal has been expressed by former federal justice minister of Canada Irwin Cotler, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Black Coalition of Quebec.

The motion will be brought forward by a councillor in the opposition, and is based on the bylaw recently adopted by New York City. Councillor Marvin Rotrand says efforts to find out if facial recognition is currently used by Montreal Police have been stonewalled. Chief Sylvain Caron refused to say whether the department had access to the technology in a November committee appearance.

Cell phone surveillance devices, often known as “Stingrays” after a popular brand, would also be restricted by the legislation, along with automated license plate readers.

The article notes that the city’s executive committee sees a possible jurisdiction issue with the proposed ban, which could fall under the Province’s remit.

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