Somerville, Massachusetts Second Municipality Nationwide to Ban Government Use of Facial Recognition Technology

Local governments may not be in the headlines as much as their state and federal counterparts, but last week saw local governments getting their turn on the news.  In politics, the Democratic presidential primary debates saw a total of 6 current or former mayors take the stage. (Free trivia fact: By comparison, only 3 presidents in American history have previously served as mayors!)  And the City of Somerville, Massachusetts banned governmental use of facial recognition technology.

The final resolution has not been published, but an earlier draft is available through the City’s website here.  Comparing the broad application of facial surveillance technologies to “requiring every person to carry and display a personal photo identification card at all times,” and noting potential disparate impacts on women, young people, and people of color, the resolution bars the City and anyone acting on the City’s behalf from using facial recognition technology or using any information obtained from facial recognition technology.  The resolution was approved by an 11-0 vote of the City Council on Thursday, and signed by Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone on Friday, June 28.

Somerville is only the second municipality in the nation to have enacted such a ban, with San Francisco having done so in May of this year.  Bills that would ban the governmental use of facial identification technology throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are currently pending in both houses of the state legislature, though the prospects of the bills passing are unclear.  Other states are considering similar bans as well.  And, as we’ve noted before, the federal courts have addressed and will likely continue to address the constitutionality of the use of biometric information by government actors.

When it comes to emerging issues in biometrics law, much of the focus has been on the use of biometrics by private entities, such as businesses.  For example, the Illinois Biometric Protection Act (BIPA), the first and still strongest law regulating the use of biometrics, is focused on such uses—oftentimes involving selfies and social media.  Other questions of BIPA’s reach have come in the context of biometric timecards for employees and retail store use of facial recognition.  Somerville’s move to restrict the government use of facial recognition technology is a reminder that questions of the potentials and pitfalls of biometric technology extend not just to consumer/business and employee/employer relationships, but also to the relationship between citizens and government.

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