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Madison City Council bans use of face surveillance technology

Madison City Council bans use of face surveillance technology

City-County Building (copy)

Madison banned the use of facial recognition technology with exemptions that allow the Madison Police Department to continue its use of the tool.

The Madison City Council voted Tuesday to ban the use of a divisive technology that can match the characteristics of a human face to images in a database while allowing exemptions for the Madison Police Department to continue its use of the tool.

Ald. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, said the city should not want “Madison to be known as a place where you come and get mass surveilled.”

“We want people in Madison to feel safe and to know that there are no city resources, there are no city cameras, there are no city technologies in any agency that is going to take their image and add it to one of these mass databases,” Kemble said.

The adopted ordinance, which grew out of the city adopting its Use of Surveillance Technology policy, bans facial surveillance technology across all city departments. Exceptions include the use of such technology to identify and/or locate individuals who are victims of human trafficking or missing children.

Other exemptions include:

  • Obtaining or possessing an electronic device, such as a cell phone or tablet, that performs face surveillance for the sole purpose of user authentication.
  • Using face recognition on an electronic device, such as a cell phone or table, for the sole purpose of user authentication.
  • Using social media or communication software or application for communicating with the public, provided such use does not include the affirmative use of any face surveillance.
  • Using automated redaction software, provided that it does not have the capability of performing face surveillance.

The ordinance must also comply with the National Child Search Assistance Act.

Though the City Council’s discussions largely focused on the Madison Police Department, Kemble said the intention of the ordinance is to put a moratorium on all facial recognition technology with an exception for the MPD’s Special Victims Unit work.

The MPD does not have its own facial recognition software, however, it does work with partners who have this capacity. The primary use is for investigation of child pornography, human trafficking and other internet crimes against children.

Acting Chief Vic Wahl said that the department’s Special Victims Unit has used this facial recognition technology to remove 12 juveniles from trafficking situations this year.

“It’s very important that we’re able to continue doing what we’re doing, so that we’re working to protect child victims and locate them, rescue them, to locate child pornography,” Wahl said. “In the future, it would be nice to have the capacity if we have a significant crime with a significant risk to public safety, that we have the capacity to reach out to external partners and see if we can use this technology.”

Alders voted 17-2 to adopt the ordinance, adding Madison to a list of cities that have limited the use of this technology that includes Oakland, San Francisco and Boston.

In a separate vote that failed, five alders supported an alternate version of the legislation that would have expanded use of the technology to aid in the investigation of missing adults, to identify suspects in serious felony cases who pose significant risks to the public or to identify a deceased individual.

“Opening this up to criminal investigations is not something we can do and is a public safety issue for marginalized communities in Madison,” Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, said.  

Proponents of the ban point to research showing that facial surveillance technology performs less effectively when analyzing the faces of women, people of color, the elderly and children. Many speakers described their lived experiences of not feeling safe because of the color of their skin.

“Facial recognition technology in the hands of the police has not been helpful for civilians at large but rather for the perpetuation of violence on Black and Brown bodies,” said Ananda Deacon, representing the ACLU Student Alliance at UW-Madison.

Supporters of these tools also addressed perceptions of public safety, arguing that facial recognition technology is a critical tool for law enforcement to identify victims and apprehend perpetrators.

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