Culture

Massachusetts could be the first U.S. state to ban facial recognition by cops

The bill in question boasts general bipartisan support and could inspire other states to follow suit.

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A police reform bill, S. 2963, delivered in Massachusetts' House and Senate takes special notice of facial recognition technology and how law enforcement authorities in various parts of the country seem eager to use the software in as unregulated a manner as possible. State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle joined hands in passing a vote on Tuesday, which would fully ban the use of facial recognition by police departments.

All that remains between the bill passing is the Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker's signature. If the bill is approved, Massachusetts will become the very first state in the country to officially prohibit police use of software that compromises the identity and privacy of private citizens, including but not limited to those exercising their right to protest.

What else is in S. 2963? — It isn't facial recognition alone that has worried the state's lawmakers about potential transgressions and violations against civilians. The Massachusetts bill would also ban the use of chokeholds and rubber bullets by police in the state.

This emphasis on police reform arrives just months after law enforcement departments in various parts of the United States used rubber bullets on Black Lives Matter protesters during the summer. As Esquire reported in Killing Them Softly: 50 Years Of Rubber Bullets, From Belfast To Black Lives Matter, rubber bullets were initially introduced in Northern Ireland as a supposedly "non-lethal" method to engage with protesting civilians.

If shot, the idea — as government officials would insist — was that the individual would not be seriously injured, but perhaps deterred from further protests. It only took two years for that claim to fall on its face, leading to its first casualty during the infamous Northern Ireland riots. Over the summer of 2020, reports of protests in the United States over racial inequality and police violence noted the presence of these rubber bullets yet again.

Others could follow Massachusetts' lead — The bill tackles multiple issues at once and in doing so could be an inspiring case for other states to follow and seek to emulate. When it comes to the ethically shaky issue of facial recognition, any moves to make the technology more difficult to implement will doubtless strike lawmakers concerned about its efficacy and privacy advocates similarly jubilant.

These advocates have repeatedly criticized how facial recognition disproportionately targets racial minorities and women, misidentifies subjects (including children), and encourages insidious surveillance all in the name of security and safety. If Baker doesn't capitulate to police union appeals, the Codfish State could spark a nationwide movement.