Privacy SOS

Boston Police body camera policy forbids facial recognition

The Boston Globe today released the internal policy that will govern the administration of the Boston Police Department’s body worn camera pilot program. The policy is pretty good, with the glaring exception of the BPD’s decision—most likely union driven—to allow officers to review footage before writing incident reports. As ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matt Segal says, allowing officers to review footage before writing their reports “can make it impossible for anyone to know what the officer actually saw—as opposed to what the camera saw—and can even enable officers to change their version of events based on what was or wasn’t captured on camera.” While the policy needs significant improvement on that front, the privacy protections it affords are just what the community demanded.

Among the policy’s privacy provisions are:

  • protections for civilians in homes, locker rooms, and other sensitive areas;
  • a ban on using body cameras to record civilians based solely on the exercise of First Amendment rights; and
  • a statement that body worn cameras won’t use “technological enhancements” like facial recognition.

That last bit is extremely important. After all, communities across the country and here in Boston have been demanding police adopt body cameras because of indications that the technology advances more respectful and constitutional police conduct. Cries for police accountability, not increased government surveillance, have driven the demand.

It’s not hard to imagine a not distant future in which body cameras can be equipped with iris scanning, facial recognition, and voice identifying tools, making it extremely easy for police officers to identify particular people in public places. Just imagine a police officer walking down the street with a body camera, clocking and analyzing the faces, irises, and voices of every person she encounters, and cataloging all of that information in databases. The largest body camera manufacturer in the country, Taser, is candid about its plans to incorporate facial recognition into its next generation technology.

For the time being at least, that’s not coming to Boston. And that’s a good thing. There’s always a risk that when we give police departments access to potentially invasive technologies, they’ll be used to chill speech or infringe on other core constitutional rights. That’s why smart policy, meaningful transparency, and verifiable accountability are so important.

So to the Boston Police Department: Good job establishing a body worn camera policy that aims to protect privacy. We will be vigilant to make sure the technology is implemented in a way that advances, rather than constricts, everyone’s basic rights. Part of staying vigilant will mean keeping an eye out for potential privacy violations from body cameras, including not just the use of facial recognition as the cameras are rolling, but also the application of that kind of biometric analysis after the fact.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.