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Cities face up to facial recognition ethics

More cities move to limit the use of facial recognition technology as leaders grapple with security threats, ethics and public perceptions.


Somerville in Massachusetts has passed an order to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the city government. It is the second US city to take such action, following on from San Francisco.


An ordinance from the City of Somerville notes that it will be illegal for any Somerville official to obtain, retain, access or use any face surveillance system or any information obtained from one.


This includes any person or company acting on behalf of the city, including police officers, employees, contractors and vendors.


Somerville has passed the ban due to concerns around the ethics and accuracy of facial recognition technology. The ordinance notes: “The broad application of face surveillance in public spaces is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to carry and display a personal photo identification card at all times.”


It noted research which has found that face surveillance technology can be far less accurate in identifying the faces of women, young people and people of colour, and that this places some people at a higher risk of harmful “false positive” identifications.


For example, research last year from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Amazon’s Rekognition software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, wrongly identifying them as people who had been arrested for a crime. The study found a disproportionately higher mismatch rate among people of colour.


Further, the ordinance states: “Many of the databases to which face surveillance technology is applied are plagued by racial and other biases, which generate copycat biases in face surveillance data.”




The benefits of facial recognition technology are outweighed by the harms, the ordinance concludes.


The Boston Globe reports that the Somerville ordinance was passed by a vote of 11 to 0 and will now be sent to Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, who is understood to support it.


Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, the lead sponsor of the bill, told the Boston Globe many citizens were concerned about facial recognition technology in their communities. “A lot of people who live here work somewhere in the tech industry and have more familiarity with this technology than the general public might,” he said. “They know how powerful this technology is. They see how unregulated it is.”


Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, welcomed the move, saying: “Somerville is now the first community on the East Coast to prohibit government use of face recognition surveillance technology, joining a growing nationwide movement to bring the technology under democratic control.


“The city is sending a bold statement that it won’t sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech. Massachusetts must also lead the nation by passing a state-wide moratorium until there are safeguards in place. We must ensure face surveillance technology doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.”


The city is sending a bold statement that it won’t sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech.


Berkeley and Oakland are also considering restricting the use of facial recognition technology.


However, a January survey from the Center for Data Innovation in the US suggested that only one in four Americans (26 per cent) think government should strictly limit the use of facial recognition technology, and that support drops even further if such a ban is perceived as being at the expense of public safety.


Fewer than one in five (18 per cent) said they would agree with strictly limiting the technology if that is the trade-off, while 55 per cent would disagree.


Growing use


Amidst widespread debate about the ethics of deploying facial recognition technology, its use in the public sector is catching on – particularly in law enforcement and security monitoring.


Asia is leading the way with the technology’s use in public spaces. For instance, in Malaysia, police are using facial recognition software from Chinese startup Yitu Technology which is built into body cameras. In Singapore, the government plans to install cameras linked to facial recognition software on lamp posts. The island nation said it was sensitive to privacy issues but noted that the tools may “be used for performing crowd analytics and supporting follow-up investigation in the event of a terror incident.”


The Chinese government is building what is said to be the world’s most powerful facial recognition system, with a target to be able to identify “anyone, anytime, anywhere in China within three seconds,” according to a report in the South China Morning Post.


Usage of facial recognition kit is growing in the west too. In October, Orlando’s Police Department entered the second phase of a pilot with Amazon’s facial recognition technology. The proof of concept is expected to conclude soon.


The City of Orlando has stressed that no images of the public will be used for any testing, stating that only images of Orlando police officers who have volunteered to participate in the test pilot will be used.


John Mina, Orlando Police Chief, said: “We have made good strides in testing this technology and believe it is important to continue this evaluation period to determine if it’s a concept that could add immeasurable value in enhancing the city’s public safety mission in a manner that balances reasonable privacy concerns."


If Orlando’s Police Department decides to implement the technology after the trial, it says it would develop policy and governance around it.


The Metropolitan Police in the UK is also running a live trial of facial recognition technology. Academics from the University of Essex were recently granted access to six of these trials. Their report, published this week, raises concerns about “significant flaws” in the pilot, as well as accuracy and legality. The study has prompted new calls for limits on the use of the technology.


Facing the future


Jason Tooley, board member of techUK and Chief Revenue Officer at biometric authentication technology company Veridium urges organisations such as police forces to adopt a more holistic, open approach to the technology.


Police may not need to to scrap facial recognition software entirely, Tooley says, arguing that the issue is more to do with public perception and education than success rate.


"It needn’t be the case for the police to scrap facial recognition software entirely."


Tooley commented: “Fingerprint technology has high levels of consumer adoption due to use on mobile devices, and use cases such as airports using flatbed scanners, which is also widely understood and helps immensely with acceptance.”


He added: “With the rapid rate of innovation in the field, an open biometric strategy that delivers the ability for the police to use the right biometric techniques for the right requirements will accelerate the benefits associated with digital policing and achieve public acceptance by linking the strategy to ease of adoption. Instead of only using facial recognition perhaps for a single reason, the police should ensure they have strategically assessed which is the right biometric technique, for the right use case, based on the scenario.”


Many cities around the world are left grappling with how to use facial recognition and other artificial intelligence software. While some are striking out on their own, running trials or imposing limits, pressure is growing on national governments to legislate around how these tools are used in both the public and private sector.


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