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Cambridge City Council Votes to Ban Facial Recognition Technology

Cambridge City Hall is located near Central Square.
Cambridge City Hall is located near Central Square. By Margaret F. Ross
By Maria G. Gonzalez, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council unanimously approved a measure to ban the use of facial recognition technology in a 9-0 vote Monday night.

Following the lead of Brookline, Northampton, and Somerville, Cambridge is the fourth city in Massachusetts to restrict the use of facial recognition technology.

Cambridge’s new measure prohibits city departments from accessing or using facial recognition technology and information obtained from the software. Previously, a 2018 ordinance allowed Cambridge officials to use biometric or facial recognition technology with the City Council’s approval.

Face surveillance systems use facial recognition technology to analyze images of human faces. This information is then used to identify, monitor, and track people without their knowledge or consent.

While supporters say facial recognition technologies enhance safety and security, critics of facial surveillance argue that current privacy laws are not equipped to regulate the evolving technology and that the inconsistency and inaccuracy of facial recognition endangers residents.

“Cambridge joins a small but growing number of cities who are stepping up to protect residents from intrusive and undemocratic technology,” Cambridge City Councilor and former mayor Marc C. McGovern wrote in a tweet on Monday.

McGovern, who proposed the measure in late July, also thanked the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts for their support in passing the ban.

The ACLU — which has supported efforts to restrict facial surveillance in Cambridge, Somerville, San Francisco, and Oakland — has argued that facial recognition technology promotes racial disparities and biases. Its Massachusetts arm launched the Press Pause on Face Surveillance campaign to educate the public on the civil liberties concerns that it alleges facial recognition technology presents.

According to the ACLU of Massachusetts’s website, “face surveillance technology poses unprecedented threats to privacy, free speech, and racial and gender justice.”

“Studies including those done in Cambridge at MIT have shown the technology is highly inaccurate when evaluating the faces of Black women, with inaccuracy rates of up to 35 percent for that demographic,” the website states.

A similar bill before the Massachusetts State House seeks to regulate facial recognition technology statewide.

“Face recognition technology has a history of being far less accurate in identifying the faces of women, young people, and dark skinned people,” the bill reads. “Such inaccuracies lead to harmful ‘false positive’ identifications.”

If passed, the bill would establish a moratorium on face recognition and other remote biometric surveillance systems, making Cambridge’s ban on facial recognition technology the new norm in Massachusetts.

—Staff writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com.

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