By Tim Cushing
Another state is looking to join California in banning facial recognition tech by law enforcement. Massachusetts legislators have just passed a bill that would outlaw facial recognition use in the state, following up on similar bans passed by cities within the state.
Massachusetts lawmakers have voted to pass a new police reform bill that will ban police departments and public agencies from using facial recognition technology across the state.
The bill was passed by both the state’s House and Senate on Tuesday, a day after senior lawmakers announced an agreement that ended months of deadlock.
At this point, it’s not a full-on ban. But it does prevent law enforcement agencies from acquiring the tech until the end of 2021, at which point legislators will discuss a complete ban or the institution of other restrictions on its use. This moratorium is part of a bigger police reform bill, one that bans chokeholds and rubber bullets while pushing for intervention by police officers if they observe another officer violating rights. Ending qualified immunity in the state is no longer on the table, though, shouted down by the state’s police unions.
That being said, this temporary ban is bigger than California’s. California’s moratorium (effective until 2022) only prevents the use of facial recognition tech in police body cameras. Everything else is still allowed for the time being. The moratorium in Massachusetts would prevent law enforcement agencies from acquiring any version of this tech.
But it would allow law enforcement to run searches through the state’s motor vehicle database. The state DMV will still be allowed to use biometrics to verify individuals seeking vehicle licenses and other permits. However, if a law enforcement agency utilizes this option (which is limited to warrant execution and other “immediate danger of death or serious injury” situations), an affidavit justifying the search must be filed with the court and the person targeted by the search notified within 72 hours. The DMV is also obligated to publish periodic reports on searches run by law enforcement agencies.
But there may be some opposition ahead. Even though this has passed both legislative branches, it still needs the governor’s signature. Last year, Governor Charlie Baker stated he wasn’t interested in regulating this tech at the state level, giving this bizarre response to journalists.
“My understanding is most of that’s regulated at this point at the federal level,” Baker told reporters Monday, following a Herald report on the spread of the technology and lack of controls. “Whether or not it should be regulated at the state level is something we’ve had conversations about, but they’re not to the point where we’d be ready to file legislation.”
The tech is very definitely not regulated at the federal level. The only legislation targeting this tech has been passed by cities and states. Congress may have expressed an interest in taking on the tech, but nothing has made its way to the president’s desk, much less made it out of committee. Federal agencies — especially those operating under the DHS’s unwatchful eye — are big fans of biometric surveillance and very few federal legislators seem interested in tempering their acquisition and deployment of the tech.
The tech remains highly problematic and under-regulated. If this bill becomes law, it will at least force the state of Massachusetts to confront these issues before moving forward with tech acquisitions. A little more scrutiny might go a long way.