Massachusetts lawmakers voted this week to ban law enforcement and public agencies from using facial recognition technology in a sweeping police reform bill that has garnered significant bipartisan support.
If signed into law, Massachusetts would become the first US state to ban the technology completely, following the ban banning the use of facial recognition on police cameras and other city-specific bans on the technology.
The bill represents the state’s way of handling the thorny ethical issue of using disorganized facial recognition in the absence of any federal directives from Congress.
The bill does not represent a blanket ban on facial recognition technology, so police can still conduct searches in the state’s driver’s license database, but they need a court order with the publication of annual transparency reports regarding these searches.
Massachusetts joins cities such as Portland, Maine, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Oakland that have banned police use of facial recognition technology.
Boston earlier this year became the first major city on the East Coast to prevent police from using facial recognition services.
The Massachusetts bill represents a step forward by making the ban statewide.
The bill was passed in the Senate and in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and is now awaiting signature by the Massachusetts Governor.
The use of facial recognition technology has become a controversial topic in the AI industry and technical policy arena due to a lack of federal guidance regulating its use.
This vacuum allowed a number of companies to intervene and provide services to governments, law enforcement agencies, private companies as well as individuals, often without any oversight or records of how they were used.
A number of researchers have been sounding the alarm for years that the technology may have flaws, even when powered by artificial intelligence.
Systems like Rekognition from Amazon have been shown to have trouble determining the gender of dark-skinned individuals and suffer from another racial bias related to how databases are built and how models are trained on that data.
In June, Amazon banned police from using its facial recognition platform for a year, saying it wanted to give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules governing the sale and use of technology.
Amazon was following the example of IBM, which announced the same month that it would not develop the technology at all after acknowledging criticisms of researchers and activists about its potential use in racial profiling, mass surveillance, and other civil rights violations.