Second in the Nation: Somerville City Council Passes Facial Recognition Ban

By Michael Boldin

SOMERVILLE, Mass. (June 27, 2019) – The Somerville city council voted Thursday to ban the use of facial recognition by police investigations and city departments. Following San Francisco, it’s now the second U.S. city to outlaw the technology.

Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen was the lead sponsor of the “Face Surveillance Full Ban Ordinance.” 9 of the 11 Somerville City Councilors sponsored the legislation, and it was approved by a 11-0 vote.

The new law refers to facial recognition as the “functional equivalent of requiring every person to carry and display a personal photo identification card at all times.” It forbids any “department, agency, bureau, and/or subordinate division of the City of Somerville” from using facial recognition software in public spaces.

In addition to a ban of active use by city departments, the ordinance outlaws use of data or evidence produced by facial recognition software systems in criminal investigations or legal proceedings.

Last month, San Francisco became the first in the nation to ban facial recognition. ACLU of Northern California called the vote historic.

“By passing this law, the city gave the community a seat at the table and acted decisively to protect its people from the growing danger of face recognition, a highly invasive technology that would have radically and massively expanded the government’s power to track and control people going about their daily lives. Supported by Bay Area voters, and a broad coalition of privacy, civil rights, and racial justice groups, this powerful measure will protect the safety and civil rights of all San Franciscans who deserve to live their lives without being targeted by dangerous high-tech surveillance. In the hands of the government, face surveillance would supercharge discriminatory policing, stifle civic engagement, and entangle people with ICE.”

The Tenth Amendment Center joined with a broad coalition of organizations including ACLU of Northern California, Color of Change, Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area, The Greenlining Institute, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Media Alliance and Oakland Privacy in supporting the ordinance.

A similar measure will get a vote by the Berkeley City Council on July 9th and the Oakland City Council on July 16th.

The California State Legislature is also considering a facial recognition ban on police body cams. A bill introduced in the Michigan State Senate would ban all government use of facial recognition.

Practical Effect

Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. Police often operate highly intrusive surveillance technology in complete secrecy.

The federal government facilitates local surveillance through grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

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In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s use of stingray devices on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

Ordinances like the one introduced in San Francisco create a framework of oversight and transparency for surveillance programs. They also set the stage to limit surveillance by giving residents input into the process and allowing them to oppose and stop the purchase of spy-gear.

Impact on Federal Surveillance

Passage of local ordinances not only protects the privacy of people in that area. They also undermine the federal surveillance state. The federal government funds much of the surveillance technology acquired by state and local law enforcement. In return, federal agencies tap into the data swept up by these agencies through information sharing agreements and fusion centers. Information gathered by your local police department often ends up permanently stored in federal databases. These create the backbone of the federal surveillance state.

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

By facilitating local surveillance, the federal government undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Passage of an ordinance in one locality may not seem significant. But when multiplied over hundreds of cities and counties across the United States, this strategy could seriously undermine federal surveillance programs. If local police can’t collect and share the data, it cannot end up in federal databases.


Michael Boldin [send him email] is the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center., where this article first appeared. He was raised in Milwaukee, WI, and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter – @michaelboldin and Facebook.

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