Cops Elude Baltimore Ban on Facial Recognition Technology

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facial recognition

Female head with a biometric polygon map of facial features superimposed. The identification of a behavioural or physical trait for recognition purposes is known as biometrics, and is used for facial recognition software. Photo by Martin Jolicoeur via Flickr

The Baltimore City Council passed a bill Monday that would bar the use of facial recognition technology by residents, businesses and most of city government, The Baltimore Sun reported. But the city police department would be exempt from the moratorium, frustrating advocates who cite the technology’s racial bias and misuse.

Sponsored by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, the bill would ban facial recognition technology until 2022. The police department, which is under the jurisdiction of the state of Maryland and not City Council, could continue to use such technology via the Maryland Image Repository System.

Burnett, who represents Baltimore’s 8th City Council District, said facial recognition technology is less accurate when attempting to identify Black and brown faces, as well as the faces of people with disabilities. In a news conference this month, he warned that private users could sell data to databases like the state’s repository system, which compiles Maryland driver’s license photos, photos of state prison inmates and police mug shots. Officers use images stored in this software to identify people, raising concerns about data manipulation and false arrests.

“The question that remains is a moral question, an ethical question,” Burnett told The Sun. “Is that the right thing to do? Should people just be able to walk down the street, walk to the harbor, walk through their neighborhood, wherever they are in the city of Baltimore, and just be able to do that without worrying that they are now being surveilled?”

Burnett’s concerns align with those of other lawmakers and advocates, who cite facial recognition’s “divergent error rates” across demographic groups. Compiling several studies on the technology’s inequitable application, Alex Najibi of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences wrote that facial recognition technology is most inaccurate when attempting to identify Black women between the ages of 18 and 30, and most accurate when attempting to identify the faces of white men.

In criticizing the Baltimore bill, Burnett highlighted law enforcement’s misuse of facial recognition technology. Although tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM placed restrictions on their sale of facial recognition technology to police a year ago, Congress has yet to pass any laws regulating police use of facial recognition.

Meanwhile, police departments continue to benefit from previous partnerships with surveillance systems. Ring — Amazon’s smart home security subsidiary — has formed more than 2,100 partnerships with police and fire departments since 2018, offering departments access to user-recorded video footage.

Privacy advocates worry these partnerships “have turned residents into informants” while granting police access to information without a warrant and increasing racial profiling, CNBC reported. The criminalization of last summer’s protests substantiated some of those concerns: the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) requested access to Ring footage during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests, according to emails obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) this February.

EFF journalists Matthew Guariglia and Dave Maass analyzed the emails, writing that police partnerships with Ring, and other similar surveillance systems, create “risks of retribution or reprisal, especially at protests against police violence. Ring cameras, ubiquitous in many neighborhoods, create the possibility that if enough people share footage with police, authorities are able to follow protestors’ movements, block by block.”

Such concerns animated discussions in Baltimore, where the Councilmembers voted 12-2 in favor of the bill. If signed by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, the bill would be one of the nation’s strictest facial recognition bans.

The city of Portland, Ore., became the first municipality to ban the use of facial recognition technology by government agencies and private entities in public spaces last September. Portland’s ban prevents private businesses — including restaurants and convenience stories, entertainment venues, banks, doctor’s offices, hotels and Airbnb rentals, and rideshare services and public transit stations — from using the technology.

This isn’t the first time Baltimore councilmembers have attempted to curb facial recognition technology: a bill Burnett sponsored last year died in committee after some members criticized its potential to limit police access to the image repository system. If the city regains control of the police department from the state of Maryland, which Baltimore residents will vote on in 2022 or 2024, Burnett said he will pursue a ban on the technology for the department.

This summary was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Eva Herscowitz

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