SPRINGFIELD — The City Council took its first steps Monday to ban, at least temporarily, the city’s use of facial recognition technology — a technology they say is inaccurate and likely to cast unwarranted suspicion on women and people of color.
Councilor said they are also working to protect the general public from unnecessary surveillance.
The motion passed its first action with Victor Davila, Adam Gomez, Tracye Whitfield , Ramos, Marcus Williams, Jesse Lederman, Melvin Edwards, Malo Brown and Council President Justin Hurst voting yes. Councilors Sean Curran and Kateri Walsh voted no.Councilor
Councilor Orlando Ramos described the measure as a moratorium. He said he would like the issue to automatically reappear on the council agenda five years after passage. The council could also rethink the measure sooner, say in three years, if they decide to do so. Councilor Tim Allen was absent.
There was some discussion about shortening that window to a two- or three- year period..
“We are dealing with a new technology that is not regulated in any way,” he said at Monday night’s meeting. “This affects everyone. If you are a taxpayer in the city of Springfield this affects you. “
He said if the city ignores the data and uses the technology knowing its faults, Springfield would be liable.
Monday night’s vote was a first action on the measure. The Council plans to take a final vote in February following another round of committee meetings.
Springfield police have said the don’t use facial recognition and have no plans, as of now, to use it, Ramos said.
Springfield police don’t use facial recognition programs. But tech companies including Amazon with its Rekognition system, are pitching the systems to police agencies.
Ramos cites an American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts study released earlier Monday that used photos of Boston Red Sox and Celtics players to demonstrate limitations of Amazon Rekognition software. The ACLU fed photos of 188 New England athletes into the system and it misidentified 28, matching them to mugshots in the arrest photo database.
“People should feel free to take their children to school, to visit a substance abuse counselor, to protest the government, without ending up in a government database,” Ramos said.
The technology is better at differentiating among middle-aged white men, according to the ACLU. It doesn’t do a good job with women, blacks and Latinos.
If the moratorium passes, Springfield would join neighboring community Northampton and Somerville, Brookline in Massachusetts as well as Oakland and San Francisco, California, which have already banned the technology.
Councilor Tracye Whitfield cited the ACLU study showing that black women are 35% more likely to be misidentified compared with white men. She said blacks are already unfairly targeted with suspicion.
As a dark-skinned black woman, Whitfield knows she’d personally be more likely to be misidentified.
“This will protect my family,” she said.
Councilor Kateri B.Walsh said even a three-year moratorium is an eternity when it comes to technology.
Councilor Adam Gomez, a cosponsor, said now is a time for the council to set policy as the Springfield Police Department is evaluating vendors for police body cameras.
“We want to make sure that public safety is our priority,” he said. “I want the bad guys to get picked up, put away.”
But he knows that the technology won’t’t work for people of color and he knows that racial profiling happens.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been puled over,” Gomez said. “That’s even without facial recognition software. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled over.”
Gomez said the technology just doesn’t make sense in a majority-minority black and Latino city like Springfield.
“Let us regulate something that the state should have regulated long ago,” Gomez said.
Councilor Michael Fenton said he would support limits on the use of the technology to create a database, or to scan people at protests or in public places.
But he said city police have said the technology could be useful — to find a fugitive or a missing person — for example.
“It also provides as an opportunity to prove people innocent,” he said. “I have an apprehension, a human apprehension, about the City of Springfield being a Big Brother and watching you. But I don’t think we need to that with a blanket prohibition.”
Fenton also referenced the DNA technology that helped police solve the Lisa Ziegert case. It’s not the same technology, but the DNA analysis that give police an image of what the killer might have looked like, carries with it its own risks of miss identification.
Whitfield said the technology is not a benefit to minorities who are already wrongly identified and wrongly incarcerated.