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How One State Managed to Actually Write Rules on Facial Recognition


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Activist Kade Crockford.

Two years ago, Kade Crockford and the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts launched a campaign against face surveillance to educate policymakers about problems with the technology, and to investigate the breadth of its use in the state.

Credit: Tony Luong/The New York Times

Though police have been using facial recognition technology for the last two decades to try to identify unknown people in their investigations, the practice of putting the majority of Americans into a perpetual photo lineup has gotten surprisingly little attention from lawmakers and regulators. Until now.

Lawmakers, civil liberties advocates and police chiefs have debated whether and how to use the technology because of concerns about both privacy and accuracy. But figuring out how to regulate it is tricky. So far, that has meant an all-or-nothing approach. City Councils in Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Minneapolis and elsewhere have banned police use of the technology, largely because of bias in how it works. Studies in recent years by MIT researchers and the federal government found that many facial recognition algorithms are most accurate for white men, but less so for everyone else.

At the same time, automated facial recognition has become a powerful investigative tool, helping to identify child molesters and, in a recent high-profile example, people who participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Law enforcement officials in Vermont want the state's ban lifted because there "could be hundreds of kids waiting to be saved."

That's why a new law in Massachusetts is so interesting: It's not all or nothing. The state managed to strike a balance on regulating the technology, allowing law enforcement to harness the benefits of the tool, while building in protections that might prevent the false arrests that have happened before.

From The New York Times
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