Lawmakers in Massachusetts on Tuesday voted to ban the state’s police department as well as public agencies from using facial recognition technology. According to TechCrunch, the police reform bill, which was passed by the state’s House as well as its Senate, brought the curtains down to months of stalemate.
The Senate voted 28-12 in favor of the bill, while the House also voted 92-67. All that needs to be done now is for Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker to append his signature to pass it into law. The bill was tabled to the legislature by lawmakers following the death of George Floyd – the Black man whose death in the hands of a Minneapolis police officer triggered nationwide protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, with one of the demands of the protesters being swift police reform.
Besides the facial recognition ban, the new police reform bill in the state also bans the use of chokeholds and rubber bullets, and places limitations on the use of chemical agents including tear gas, TechCrunch reported. The bill also allows officers to intervene if they feel a colleague is using excessive force. The state’s officers are still, however, protected by qualified immunity as police unions were not in favor of it being scrapped.
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Despite the statewide ban, the bill permits the police to use facial recognition for searches on the state’s driver license database as long as a warrant is obtained. It is, however, on condition that the department provides yearly transparency numbers on how many searches its officers made.
Critics have long argued facial recognition technology is skewed. Over the years, various studies have provided proof that facial recognition tools are often biased against minorities. A 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that though the technology works relatively well on white men, it provides less accurate results for other demographics, and experts have blamed this on a lack of diversity in the images used to develop the databases.
“No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go, or facing wrongful arrest because of biased, error-prone technology,” Kade Crockford, the head of Technology for Liberty program for the Massachusetts office of the ACLU, told TechCrunch. “In the last year, the ACLU of Massachusetts has worked with community organizations and legislators across the state to ban face surveillance in seven municipalities, from Boston to Springfield. We commend the legislature for advancing a bill to protect all Massachusetts residents from unregulated face surveillance technology.”
As there are no federal laws on the use of facial recognition technology in the US, states and cities have been stepping in to regulate it. In September, the city of Portland passed what is regarded as the strictest facial recognition ban in the country. Last year, San Francisco also became the first major city in the country to ban its police department and agencies from using it.