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Councilors call on city to prohibit facial recognition

Studies show that facial recognition software often produces false matches with blacks and Asian Americans.

Kenneal Patterson

Boston’s contract with its current surveillance company is set to expire next week, and upgrades could include facial recognition software that isn’t currently used by the city. In last week’s city council meeting, Councilors Michelle Wu and Ricardo Arroyo and Council President Kim Janey addressed concerns about this enhanced technology by drafting an ordinance prohibiting facial recognition and ensuring transparency in the city’s surveillance practices.

Studies show that facial recognition software often produces false matches with blacks and Asian Americans.

“When we talk about facial recognition in racial inequity, it furthers it,” said Arroyo. “It’s been proven much less accurate for people with darker skin.”

Study by an MIT researcher, found that black women were 35% more likely than white men to be misclassified by the technology

Arroyo cited a study by an MIT researcher, which found that black women were 35% more likely than white men to be misclassified by the technology. He also noted that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the software may only be accurate 30% of the time.

Janey also acknowledged studies showing inequities in the use of such software. The National Institute of Standards and Technology found that systems falsely identified African American and Asian faces up to 100 times more than Caucasian faces, she said. In another study, the ACLU compared photos of 188 New England athletes with a database of 20,000 mugshots. The test resulted in 27 false positives.

“It’s clear that databases like the one mentioned here are not reliable for any serious use, let alone law enforcement,” said Janey. “So we have to be really careful.”

Wu said that enhanced technology must be built on a foundation of trust. In Moscow, she noted, the government can track residents through security footage and target those who aren’t abiding by quarantine rules. She said the technology is a potential risk for civil liberties and basic rights.

Arroyo agreed. “The reality is, being alive and wanting to take part in our society … does not mean that you are consenting to being surveilled in such an invasive way,” he said.

“The racial disparities and how this technology plays out are just something that we can’t risk entangling in an already racially tilted criminal justice system,” added Councilor Kenzie Bok.

The ordinance on surveillance oversight and information sharing, said Arroyo, will bring transparency and accountability to the city’s use of surveillance technology.

The ordinance would require the mayor to publish an annual surveillance report. Walsh must also submit a proposed Surveillance Use Policy to the council for its review and approval; the policy applies to each city department that currently possesses or uses surveillance technology.

It also is aimed at protecting student privacy, said Arroyo. Residents have voiced concerns regarding Boston Public Schools (BPS) sharing student information with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“[The ordinance] details parameters for what kind of information school district officials share with law enforcement,” he said, adding, “It would prohibit the sharing of such information as immigration status, ethnicity, neighborhood of residence and languages spoken.”

Janey said that surveillance technology and electronic data gathering can disproportionately impact low-income black and brown communities

Janey said that surveillance technology and electronic data gathering can disproportionately impact low-income black and brown communities.  Janey and Arroyo also called for a hearing regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 U.S. census. Boston’s total self-response rate is only at 47%, and the city is ranked 299 out of Massachusetts’ 351 towns.

“We can do better,” said Janey. “We’re a championship city. We should be number one.”

Councilor Arroyo agreed. “Like so many other things that have been disrupted this year by the pandemic, the census is no different,” he said. “Boston is currently not doing well, or below the average of large cities when it comes to the census count.”

Janey said that the 2020 census will determine the allocation of over $16 billion in federal funding. She called it a “critical tool that has the power to impact societal infrastructure.”

“It has the potential to shape the future and how resources are allocated to communities and populations that need it the most over the next decade,” she added.

The census has a history of oppression, said Janey. The first U.S. census in 1790 had only six questions; it started by asking the name of the white male householder and ended by asking for the number of slaves.

During that time, noted Janey, enslaved people of African descent were counted as just three-fifths of a person. Native Americans weren’t counted at all. The census was used to strip people of their personhood, said Janey.

Now, she said, it can be used to repair the harms caused by centuries of racist policies by providing communities with critical resources.

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George offered a resolution to recognize May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Reports of anxiety and depression have recently flooded the country due to trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arroyo, who said that he has personally sought help for mental health issues, spoke in support of this measure.

“Mental health is incredibly important, especially in communities of color,” he said. “I just want to uplift that there’s always somebody listening, there’s always somebody to help.”

The month of May also marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Wu acknowledged the rise in hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community since the beginning of the pandemic.

Councilor Ed Flynn added, “Certain people are using irresponsible rhetoric that makes Asian Americans scapegoats for the spread of this virus.”

Flynn said the country needs to come together to show respect and empathy for the AAPI community.

“We’re always quick to judge people and look down upon or blame somebody,” he said. “But it’s really about bringing the best out of people and letting them know that everybody’s welcomed. That’s what America is all about.”

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