Panel calls for tougher rules on facial recognition | News

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BOSTON — A state commission is recommending strict new limits on the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement officials and a requirement that judges issue probable cause warrants to conduct facial recognition searches.

The report issued by the Legislature’s Special Commission on Facial Recognition calls for limiting and regulating the acquisition, possession, access or use of any facial recognition system by local police departments, while centralizing use of the technology under a single facial recognition unit under the state police.

“The centralization and standardization of this process will promote efficiency, ensure consistency, improve training and foster more transparency and accountability,” the report’s authors wrote.

The commission also recommended that judges review requests from law enforcement to use the technology and determine whether there is probable cause to issue a warrant to conduct a facial recognition search, unless it is being used for a public safety emergency or to identify a deceased individual.

“This recommendation adds another layer of protection and oversight to the use of facial recognition technology,” the panel’s report states. “Through the warrant process, law enforcement must justify its need for use of the technology to an independent court.”

Facial recognition software matches real-time images to previously captured images by comparing some 80 unique points on the face — across the eyes, nose, cheek and mouth — similar to the way fingerprints are analyzed.

The panel’s co-chairman, Rep. Michael Day, D-Stoneham, said the report makes “clear and deliberate recommendations” aimed at balancing use of the technology by the criminal justice system with the need to safeguard privacy rights.

“If the Legislature adopts these recommendations, I believe it will strike the correct balance between those competing interests and will set appropriate guidelines for law enforcement’s use of this technology,” Day said.

A sweeping police reform bill, signed into law in December 2020, prohibits most state and local government agencies from using the technology. But the law also required that facial recognition systems be studied to better understand their capabilities, as well as concerns about privacy and racial profiling.

The 22-member panel of lawmakers, educators, retired judges, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials and technology experts, spent more than a year interviewing experts, reviewing studies and taking public testimony.

Much of the review focused on the technology’s reliability, as well as a host of ethical and legal concerns surrounding its use by law enforcement officials.

The policing reform law was aimed at expanding civilian oversight of law enforcement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.

The law allows the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to continue using a facial recognition system, drawing upon a database of drivers license photos.

Police agencies must make a request to use the agency’s database. For its part, the Registry is required to publish data each year on how many times the system is searched.

Law enforcement officials say video surveillance and facial recognition systems have helped police crack kidnapping cases and find dangerous criminals and track down terrorists, including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.

But civil liberties groups are concerned the technology contributes to racial stereotyping, not to mention invasions of privacy, and say more restrictions need to be placed on its use.

More than 117 million Americans can be found in the vast facial-recognition databases used by law enforcement, according to a 2016 Georgetown Law School study.

Last month, the Internal Revenue Service announced it would no longer be using facial recognition to verify the identity of taxpayers using its online services.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at

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