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Madison weighs ban on face surveillance technology by police, other city agencies
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Madison weighs ban on face surveillance technology by police, other city agencies

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Two Madison City Council members have proposed an ordinance to ban the use of face surveillance technology by city agencies, including the Police Department.

Two Madison City Council members are proposing a law to ban all city agencies, including the Madison Police Department, from using emerging face surveillance technology or information derived from a face surveillance system.

Facial recognition systems use computerized pattern-matching technology to automatically identify peoples’ faces. It can be used by police to help catch those involved in crimes such as child sex abuse, child pornography and human trafficking, but the technology also raises questions of free speech, privacy and racial bias.

A typical facial recognition system uses the layout of a subject’s facial features, and their relative distance to one another, for identification comparison based against a separate image, or perhaps against thousands or even millions of separate images in a database or gallery of faces, the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute says. The subject’s facial image attributes are derived from either a still or video image, it says.

Some cities, such as Boston, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have enacted ordinances to limit its use.

Alds. Max Prestigiacomo and Rebecca Kemble introduced the proposed ordinance, which would ban the use of any automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying or verifying an individual, or in capturing information about an individual, based on the physical characteristics of an individual’s face.

The ordinance exempts programs that are used to open/activate devices, like a cell phone, and programs used to comply with the National Child Search Assistance Act.

“The main concern driving this proposal is the protection of civil liberties and privacy,” Kemble said. “We do not want Madison to be a place where people become walking ID cards, vulnerable to unwarranted surveillance. Our research showed that this technology is unreliable and misidentifies people, especially people with darker skin.”

The proposal came about as a proactive follow-up to the council’s passage of a Use of Surveillance Policy ordinance earlier this summer, Kemble said. The work group developing that ordinance began to talk about face recognition technology near the end of its deliberations and agreed that it needed its own proposal, she said.

“Thus far we aren’t aware of any department directly employing face recognition technology,” she said. “But the departments that might utilize it in the future are all those that utilize cameras. This includes traffic engineering, water utility, police, Monona Terrace, Community Development Authority, parking utility and possibly some others.”

The proposal has already raised concerns in the Madison Police Department.

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“We do currently work with external partners to use facial recognition technology, primarily to address human trafficking, child pornography and other internet crimes against children,” Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl said. “The ordinance, as introduced, would significantly impact our ability to investigate these crimes against children, rescue children from human trafficking, and protect child victims.”

Wahl said there are other potential future uses of facial recognition that can greatly improve community safety without implicating any privacy concerns.

“I would certainly support a deliberative process to review the technology and related issues, and determine the best course forward for the city and MPD,” Wahl said, noting the current ordinance on surveillance technology was the result of a multi-year process with a council president’s workgroup that took a lot of time to talk to agencies, review information and collaboratively put together an ordinance.

“While I’m not 100% a fan of the final product, the process itself was thoughtful and a good model for how to approach this kind of topic/legislation,” he said. “That type of process did not occur with this ordinance.”

The proposal by Prestigiacomo and Kemble would exempt:

  • Evidence relating to the investigation of a specific crime that may have been generated from a face surveillance system, provided the evidence was not generated by or at the request of any department.
  • Obtaining or possessing an electronic device, such as a cell phone or tablet, that performs face surveillance for the sole purpose of user identification.
  • Using face recognition on a device for the sole purpose of user identification.
  • Using social media or communication software or application for communicating with the pubic, provided such use does not include the affirmative use of any face surveillance.
  • Using automated redaction software, provided such software does not have the capability of performing face surveillance.

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

“This is very new and constantly evolving technology, certainly new to us,” Wahl said. “I’ve already recognized the need for an internal policy and we are in the early stages of researching one. I think (the Wisconsin Department of Justice) is pretty close to having a comprehensive policy on it as well.”

The proposal was introduced to the City Council earlier this month and city’s Public Safety Review Committee last Wednesday referred discussion to a future meeting at Wahl’s request. The council will make a final decision at a later date.

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