Facial Recognition Backlash

This photo taken Tuesday, May 7, shows a security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco. San Francisco is on track to become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies as the technology creeps increasingly into daily life. 

BOISE — Facial recognition is coming to Boise government offices later this year.

Boise has signed a contract with Meridian-based company CompuNet to install software in the security cameras at Boise City Hall and City Hall West off Emerald Street to automatically detect unwanted individuals if they enter the building. According to city spokesman Mike Journee, the system will alert security if someone is picked up by one of the five cameras who has been given a legal order not to enter either of the buildings or be near one of city employees.

“We recognized that it’s important for our employees to feel safe at their jobs, and given the high-profile nature of City Hall and some of the decisions that are made here, we felt it was important to invest in their safety and their security going forward and this part of that effort,” Journee said.

He said the system has not yet been installed because city officials are working out the details for how exactly it will be administered. The system will be set up to detect specific individuals whose photos are entered by city staff, including both people who have been banned by the city because of “credible threats” to safety and those against whom city employees have protection orders.

It will not be connected to police databases of any kind, Journee said. There is no timeline on when the system will be implemented, but the policies relating to how data is kept, how individuals are inputted and removed from the system and other procedures will be approved by an internal committee before it is installed.

Currently, if there is a security concern or someone is banned from a building, their photo is passed around to receptionists, employees at the clerk’s office on the first floor and any employees who are in a position to see someone come into the building who does not belong. Journee said this is not very efficient and can lead to someone slipping through the cracks, so this software would be more proactive.

Journee said there was not one incident that caused the city to seek out this service; instead, they were just concerned about keeping residents safe.

On an annual basis, the faces that the system is set to detect will be reevaluated, and those that are no longer banned from City Hall will be completely purged from the system. Journee said no records of who was set to be detected by the system will be kept once they are no longer on the list in order to protect privacy. Individuals will also be removed from the system throughout the year if they are no longer banned or if the legal situation banning them from the buildings changes.

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“We want to make sure we’re protecting people’s civil liberties and their safety at the same time,” Journee said.

Facial recognition technology has become controversial in recent years. It has been praised by law enforcement as an easy way to scan massive amounts of video footage to identify people of interest in criminal investigations, but it has also come under fire as being an invasion of privacy.

Currently, two cities, Somerville, Massachusetts, and San Francisco have completely banned the technology due to concerns. The technology has been used by the Department of Homeland Security to identify those who have overstayed their visas in the United States and has also been marketed to police departments nationwide.

The American Civil Liberties Union came out against Amazon’s version of this technology, called Rekognition, last summer, citing a test it conducted where the technology incorrectly matched 28 members of the U.S. Congress with mugshots of those who had committed crimes. The advocacy organization found the software disproportionately misidentified people of color and women in the test, which is consistent with academic research on the topic.

“An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives,” Jacob Snow, an attorney with the ACLU, wrote on their website. “People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that.”

Facial recognition software was recently installed at a Jacksons convenience store in Portland in an attempt to curb theft. The system requires those who come into the store at night to look into the camera, and those wearing a mask would not be able to enter. In a statement to local TV station KPTV, Jacksons said the system would not store or transmit any of the faces it captures to an outside system or hold them longer than 48 hours unless a crime is committed in the store.

This new system, which was procured through a request for proposals, will cost the city over $50,000 to install. It cost $31,000 to purchase the software, and an additional $22,000 will be spent by the city’s I.T. department to build the server to operate the system. The city will receive licenses to run 10 cameras but is only going to start out using the system with five to start.

Margaret Carmel covers the city of Boise. Follow her on Twitter @mlcarmel or reach her by phone at 757-705-8066.

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