Council votes no on use of 'facial-surveillance' by BPD

The City Council last week voted unanimously to bar police and other city agencies from using facial-surveillance software except for specific criminal investigations - and even then only if the data are not generated by city-owned cameras. The proposal, which would also prohibit the city from buying data from companies that might use the technology, now goes to the mayor for his consideration. The proposal exempts systems, such as on phones, that use facial recognition solely for user authentication.

The BPD says it does not currently use facial-surveillance technology because it is unreliable. A planned upgrade to the camera network that the department has in place around the city would include a facial-recognition module, but BPD has said it would ensure that is turned off at all times.

City Councillor Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan), who sponsored the proposal, says the measure would ensure that Bostonians are not subject to misidentification or systemic racism - for example, the fact that some camera systems are not designed to deal well with darker-skinned faces.

In response to a question from Councillor Frank Baker (Dorchester), Arroyo said the proposal would not prohibit police from collecting photos from existing camera systems to find specific suspects, such as after the Marathon bombings.

“Let’s not live in a society where we are constantly surveilling each other’s faces,” added Councillor Kenzie Bok (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, Mission Hill).