Nationally relevant

Digital Witness: What Somerville’s facial recognition technologies laws tell us about the future of mass surveillance

Illustration by Gina Lerman

When I imagined the beginning of a technocratic dystopia, it wasn’t like this. Uncanny humanoid robots were supposed to oppress us, not faceless software. Our saviors were going to be macho men holed up in bunkers à la John Connor. Instead, progressive municipal governments might be the ones to save us all.

In 2019, the city of Somerville, MA voted to regulate facial recognition technologies (FRT) in public spaces. Somerville was the second city in the country to restrict the technology, following San Francisco. Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, was one of those spearheading the efforts to pass that legislation and served on the commission formed under that law to develop and monitor the law’s implementation. “My background is in the intersection of law and technology, especially anywhere that affects equity or the power dynamics within society,” says Crockford. “We started planning in 2018 … educating the general public on the threats this technology can pose to our individual rights and our democracy.” One of the ACLU and the commission’s goals is to develop extendable approaches to regulation that can move beyond cities to states, and help address the global ramifications of this technology.

In the past two years, cities like New Orleans decided to repeal previous legislation prohibiting police from using FRT in crime investigations. States like Virginia and California took similar steps to walk back their restrictions on FRT, when police departments cited a growth in violent crime.

FRT is the hottest new thing in mass surveillance. The same technology you use to unlock your phone can also pick out faces from the grainiest of security camera footage. Algorithms can match surveilled faces to the faces contained in databases. If you own a government ID your likeness is probably in one of those databases. In the past five years, tech giants like Amazon and Meta produced their own FRT and even sold these technologies to police departments. However, since encroaching on our civil liberties isn’t a great look, a lot of said tech behemoths have walked back their AI surveillance efforts. Instead they’re leaving the dirty work to companies you’ve never heard of, like the New York-based company Clearview AI.

Following the lead of cities like Somerville and San Francisco, coupled with the outrage after George Floyd’s murder, some cities opted to take FRT out of police departments’ hands. BLM activists called for reform and restricting FRT was an achievable step forward.

“It has also been shown that the face mapping and matching algorithms don’t work equally well across genders and ethnicities,” Crockford explains, discussing an algorithmic bias by race that raises further equity concerns. Even if the software worked perfectly, however, Crockford would restrict its use because it violates fundamental rights to privacy.

The landmark (but temporary) legislation that restricted FRT in states like California and Virginia was repealed as anti-racist and abolitionist sentiments subsided in the public eye. Police departments and local governments justified this move by identifying a surge in crime rates. What their cherry-picked statistics also overlook are the pressures that, say, a generation-defining pandemic, would cause on local populations. So, in a conservative push to undo the work that civic-minded citizens advocated for, many states’ and cities’ anti-FRT legislation was whisked away.

It’s no surprise that Somerville would maintain its restrictions on the technology. Somerville’s bustling small businesses, preference for environmentally conscious modes of transport, and facial recognition restrictions are the result of a productive local government. Somerville is often at the forefront of progressive legislation in not just New England, but the entire country. Along with its landmark FRT restrictions, their city council was the first to recognize polyamorous marriage in modern times.

For Crockford, future goals revolve mostly around raising awareness of the technology and its potential for misuse, particularly in authoritarian scenarios. She sees this as something that we can reel back through legal and social means, even as the technology advances and becomes more effective and common. “We can always step this back by restricting how government is allowed to use the technology. We can use the law to limit how these tools can be used.” She hopes to expand restrictions and policies to more cities, eventually to states and ultimately nationally. She’d also like to see laws like Illinois’ biometric data protection act become more widespread. “It simply makes sure that any company collecting biometric data gets consent first and is clear about how it will use that data.” Beyond these, the next biggest threat to privacy and democracy that she sees is the use of locational data – tracking people using their cell phones and devices, without their knowledge.

Somerville’s liberal track record gives me hope that Providence will follow in its progressive footsteps. Such a law might be necessary given current Mayor Brett Smiley’s law-and-order streak. Just this year, in his effort to drive ATVs off the road entirely, Mayor Smiley supported the installation of 60 new license plate cameras, known as Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR). ALPRs produced by Wisconsinbased AI company Flock Safety, take a picture of every passing vehicle. From these images, data like the vehicle’s make, model, color, and even bumper stickers are logged. This information is held in a database for 30 days. In that time, many of Rhode Island’s Police Departments can access the images. However, if any police department has reason to suspect you of criminal activity, they may download the data, log it as evidence, and store it indefinitely. While not explicitly FRT, this kind of surveillance sets a dangerous precedent, where your privacy is at the mercy of the state. “We found mass surveillance opinions didn’t fall along party lines,” says Crockford. “Conservatives don’t like being surveilled either. We had police working with us, who pointed out that they didn’t like the idea of cameras following them around all the time when they were off duty, either. There are negotiations around the circumstances where these technologies can be used, but we found more consensus than we originally expected.”

Providence Police Department (PPD) remains tightlipped when asked if they use FRT. However, the department uses a host of other technologies that encroach on Rhode Islanders’ privacy. PPD encourages businesses and private citizens to register their personal surveillance cameras in an online database that police can use at any time. It’s impossible to know if the security footage at your local gas station or your neighbor’s pesky Ring camera are registered in this program. This footage could provide an excellent source of facemaps. In the name of reducing crime, your likeness is no longer your own.

Like Somerville, Providence’s city council shows a commitment to equity and has recently been early to some progressive efforts. Just last month, the council was among the first in the country to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. My hope is that our local government will continue to follow the path of our neighbors to the north. If those science fiction movies about AI taking over got anything right, it’s that corrupt governments and corporate greed will drive humankind further under the thumb of mass surveillance. Urging legislators both in Providence and across the state to forgo the technocratic conservatism that’s en vogue might be a crucial step to safeguarding our privacy.