On Tuesday afternoon, in a four-hour-long hearing at the Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations, the ACLU of Massachusetts, Muslim Justice League, Student Immigrant Movement, Unafraid Educators, Algorithmic Justice League, and Boston Teachers Union joined forces with MIT researchers, the National Lawyers Guild (Massachusetts Chapter), the Library Freedom Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, technology experts, policy advocates, students, teachers, activists, and members of the community to show overwhelming support for an ordinance that would ban the use of face surveillance in the City of Boston. The highlight of the hearing came when 7 year-old Boston Public Schools student Angel testified in support of the face surveillance ban, clearly stating that he feels safe at school because his teachers protect him, not because police spy on him.
The proposed ordinance, introduced by Councilors Michelle Wu and Ricardo Arroyo, aims to prohibit all Boston agencies and officials from using face surveillance technology and any information derived from it. If Boston’s City Council passes the ordinance and the Mayor signs it, Boston will become the sixth municipality in the state to ban face surveillance in local government, following Springfield, Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, and Brookline. San Francisco and Oakland, California, have also banned face surveillance.
The hearing was presided over by Councilor Lydia Edwards. It consisted of a panel of tech and policy experts followed by more than 50 members of the community, among them students, teachers, and academics. Every single person who spoke testified in strong support of banning face surveillance. Not a single person spoke against the idea, including Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who stated that the Department under his leadership would not use face surveillance technology unless it is “100 percent accurate.”
As Algorithmic Justice League founder and computer science expert Joy Buolamwini testified, that is far from the case. She told the Committee that, as a Black woman, she was shocked to discover she had to wear a white mask in order for facial recognition systems to even acknowledge that she had a face. Indeed, as a December 2019 National Institute of Standards and Technology study found, race, gender, and age biases persist in face surveillance algorithms.
But as advocates warned, face surveillance is dangerous whether or works or not. And the need to ban it in Boston is an urgent necessity brought on by decades of secretive police department acquisitions of surveillance technology, accompanied by a complete absence of independent oversight and accountability. Making matters worse, records obtained by the ACLU show the Boston Police Department uses video analytics software called BriefCam. The prior contract governing that software agreement, to use a version of BriefCam that did not include face surveillance, expired May 14. At the hearing earlier this week, Commissioner Gross did not confirm or deny whether the BPD has upgraded to BriefCam’s latest software, which includes face surveillance technology. (The ACLU filed a records request with the City of Boston to obtain the latest BriefCam contract, to learn whether or not the City indeed upgraded. Though the request was filed on May 14 and only seeks one document, the City has to date not complied with the request.)
Multiple community members spoke to the harms caused by unaccountable police surveillance, particularly for Black and brown Bostonians. My’Kel McMillen, an advocate and activist from Jamaica Plain, spoke eloquently about how it feels to live in a community subject to constant police surveillance. He shared a story about his housing complex being surveilled by abusive and invasive technologies like drones, and pointed out how the lack of transparency and accountability made it difficult for him and other advocates to find out who was surveilling them and why. McMillen told the Committee that his neighbors are fearful of speaking out about police surveillance and harassment, and expressed concern about how face surveillance would inevitably be used to target his community.
Advocates from the immigrant community in Boston were also present. Karina Ham, a Field Organizer with the Student Immigration Movement, strongly supported the ordinance because face surveillance “is another tool that will intentionally be used against marginalized communities.” She explained that one of the main characteristics of the undocumented immigrant community is its intersectionality. Boston’s immigrant community is composed of people from various different marginalized groups (transgender, Black, Latine, Muslim, and disabled people) —all groups that can be easily targeted using this technology for purposes of their harassment, detention, and deportation.
Numerous academics also testified to the need to ban face surveillance in Boston.
Woodrow Hartzog, professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, voiced his strong support for the ordinance. Professor Hartzog argued the ordinance would protect the City and its residents and visitors “against a perfect tool of oppression” because of the “substantial threats to civil liberties, privacy, and democratic accountability” that this technology poses.
Finally, representatives from the Boston Teachers Union highlighted the dangers this technology poses for Boston Public Schools students and educators.
Erik Berg, Executive Vice President of Boston Teachers Union, voiced his strong opposition to the use of the technology. “Boston Public Schools should be safe environments for students to learn, explore their identities and intellects, and play,” Berg said, arguing that “face surveillance technology threatens that environment.” Nora Paul-Schultz, a Boston Public Schools physics teacher and member of Unafraid Educators, explained that surveillance in public schools leads to the creation of law enforcement profiles about young people with consequences that can “impact their lives in material ways for years to come,” making it harder for them to get a job or housing, and even subjecting them to having criminal records or deportation.
These voices were joined by dozens of community members, including numerous youth, who spoke with one voice: We must ban face surveillance in Boston.
In addition to these powerful testimonies, more than 30 people submitted written comments. You can read some of them here:
Please take action to ban face surveillance in Boston!