BOSTON — Facial recognition systems can track criminals, thwart security threats and prevent fraud, but use of the controversial technology stirs debate over privacy, due process and racial bias.
A sweeping police reform bill, signed into law in December, prohibits most state and local government agencies from using the technology. But the law also requires that facial recognition systems be studied to better understand their capabilities, as well as concerns about privacy and racial profiling.
On Friday, a study commission held its first meeting to discuss its work. The 22-member panel of lawmakers, educators, retired judges, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials and technology experts, is required to report its findings and recommendations by year's end.
Much of the review will focus on the technology’s reliability, as well as ethical and legal concerns.
State Rep. Dave Rogers, D-Boston, a member of the group, said he wants to delve into the thorny issue of whether its use violates civil rights.
Rogers said technology has “gotten ahead of the law."
"Clearly this is about the Fourth Amendment and our rights as citizens to be free from unreasonable search and seizure," he said. "If someone has been identified in this way, they have a right to know that, and they have a right to challenge it."
Jeff Farnsworth, a former Hampden police chief and member of the panel, said a demonstration of the technology will be important.
"I think there's a large gap between what we see on TV shows and how it's actually used and employed," he said.
State police Maj. Scott Range, who also serves on the panel, said the Massachusetts Fusion Center, a joint terrorism task force, uses facial recognition to help prevent acts of terrorism and to find violent fugitives.
"We've put some parameters in place to try and ensure that when we use it we are doing it in a thoughtful way," he said.
But Kade Crockford, who represents the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts on the commission, pushed back on those claims. She said civil liberties groups are concerned the technology contributes to racial stereotyping, not to mention invasions of privacy, and more restrictions need to be placed on its use.
"Our concerns are not merely about accuracy or reliability," she said. "They also about the power of the technology that enables government to identify someone who is just walking down the street, minding their own business."
The state’s policing overhaul was aimed at improving civilian oversight of law enforcement in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by police in Minneapolis.
The law allows the Registry of Motor Vehicles to continue using a facial recognition system, drawing upon a database of drivers license photos.
Police agencies must make a request to use the agency's database. For its part, the Registry is required to publish data each year on how many times the system is searched.
Facial recognition software matches real-time images to previously captured images by comparing some 80 unique points on the face — across the eyes, nose, cheek and mouth — similar to the way fingerprints are analyzed.
More than 117 million Americans can be found in the vast facial-recognition databases used by law enforcement, according to a 2016 Georgetown Law School study.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.