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Facial recognition had an unruly couple of years in Massachusetts — ACLU

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Authors of a new civil liberties report allege police use of facial recognition in Massachusetts over the last two years saw too little government oversight and too much industry influence.

As a result, the privacy and personal data of state residents was put at risk, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, often with little or no public input. And based on the restated allegations that face biometrics do not accurately identifying non-white, non-male subjects, individual liberties could have been at stake.

To get the data they sought, ACLU staff filed 400 individual requests for relevant information dated 2018 to 2020. The effort netted 1,400 documents which have been published in an online repository.

It is difficult to know the impact of so many public agencies, police departments and schools using facial recognition because there is no meaningful coordination or statewide management of the systems. Recordkeeping for facial recognition searches by the vehicles registry office is at least in part done in handwritten logs that offer scant context or detail, wrote the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Facial recognition vendors have been pushing hard, jurisdiction by jurisdiction and from Boston to its exurbs, to entice officials to sign contracts, according to the report. One of those vendors is Clearview AI, a startup in this field that has become synonymous with rapacious unauthorized data collection and aggressive marketing.

The ACLU report says that the Registry of Motor Vehicles has the biggest, most comprehensive facial recognition system in the state. The organization says that there are no state laws or judicial oversight of the vehicles registry as it manages its database of photographs.

The department has fielded matching requests from officials around the state, but also from agencies outside Massachusetts.

The civil liberties group filed suit to open public records on the matter. It says it learned that those requesting to match images included the New York and South Caroline police departments, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Homeland Security.

It appears that the report is not merely one salvo in a battle for control over personal data held by the state. State government leaders and the Massachusetts ACLU seem to have found some common ground when it comes to facial recognition.

According to The New York Times, they found a balance in a recent law that they feel will minimize the worst impulses of law enforcement, vendors and an increasingly alarmed citizenry.

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