EASTHAMPTON — The City Council has approved an ordinance banning the city’s use of facial recognition technology, joining six other municipalities in the state, including Northampton, that have also passed bans on the technology over the past year.
The ban, which the council approved unanimously this week, makes it unlawful for the city or any city official to obtain, retain, access or use any facial surveillance system or any information gathered from such systems, according to the ordinance.
District 3 Councilor Thomas Peake co-sponsored the ban along with its lead sponsor, District 2 Councilor Homar Gomez. Peake said that one of the main reasons he became interested in the subject is the technology’s inaccuracy, noting that current facial recognition technology is more likely to falsely identify people of color and transgender people, potentially leading to negative interactions with police. Peake said the technology has not been used by the city.
“This technology, as it stands right now, is a piece of junk. It’s not very reliable at recognizing faces,” Peake said in an interview with the Gazette. “It seemed morally and fiscally prudent to press pause on it.”
Peake said he reached out to the ACLU of Massachusetts to talk about the topic, which started a campaign last summer called “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” to build awareness about government use of the technology and the potential issues regarding civil liberties it presents. So far, the state’s ACLU said it has helped pass bans in seven municipalities, including Easthampton, Northampton, Springfield and Boston.
A report last year by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, assessed 189 facial recognition software algorithms from 99 developers — a majority of the industry — and found racial bias. In one test, researchers judged the algorithms’ performance in confirming that a photo of a person matches another photo of the same person. In this “one-to-one matching,” the study found higher rates of false positives for Asian and African American faces relative to white ones.
During Wednesday’s virtual meeting, Gomez described the ban on facial recognition surveillance technology as a “new extension” of the Welcoming Community Trust Ordinance passed last July that prohibits city officials from arbitrarily reviewing a person’s immigration status unless required by law.
“This technology is dangerous,” Gomez said. “It’s not accurate, it’s biased, it’s discriminatory…”
Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti supported the ban at the meeting and acknowledged the unreliability of the technology and how it could misidentify people of color.
“This is unacceptable to me and my department,” Alberti said.
Mayor Nicole LaChapelle also spoke in favor of the measure at the meeting, saying she believed the technology “puts us all at grave danger” and erodes public trust.
“Change only happens at the speed of trust,” the mayor said, “and I see this as a small step forward to build public trust between public safety and municipal government.”
Some members of the community — many wearing shirts reading “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” — spoke during public hearing in favor of the measure. Springfield City Councilor Adam Gomez, one of the lead sponsors of a similar ordinance in his city, was one of those who joined the meeting to express support for the measure.
“If we misidentify someone, and then inevitably end up in this big lawsuit — a lawsuit of that magnitude can tank a city,” Adam Gomez said.
Another person, Jason Montgomery, also spoke in favor of the ban, but argued that even if the technology was 100% effective, it would still “exacerbate underlying bias” and infringe on people’s privacy.
“The idea that our city is stepping up and saying that we believe everyone in our town has the right to privacy, has a right to civil protections under the law, is really heartening,” Montgomery said.
There is an exception to the ban, which does not prohibit the city or any of its officials from lawfully “using evidence from a law enforcement agency outside Easthampton that may have been generated from a face surveillance system for the purposes of the investigation of a specific crime.”
Peake said this was placed in the ordinance in case the FBI or another law enforcement agency uses information from such technology in order to alert people about a certain person of interest, saying “we don’t have much control over their process.”
“I think that was put in place so that if there’s a nationwide manhunt or something like that, that we’re not the one community that says, ‘Sorry, we can’t help because we don’t agree with your methods in obtaining this evidence,’” Peake said.
At the meeting, Peake noted that right now the technology is “deeply flawed,” but that there’s a possibility it could become more accurate and cheaper sometime in the future. He said the ordinance can be rescinded through an action of the City Council, though it would first have to go through a public hearing.
Michael Connors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.