Minneapolis Bans City Cops From Using Face Recognition Tech

Minneapolis Bans City Cops From Using Face Recognition Tech
Photo: Stephen Maturen, Getty Images
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On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council approved a new ordinance that prevents the U.S. city from buying or using face recognition technology without specific permission. Local police immediately began whining about it.

In a press release, the city council announced that it voted 13-0 in favour of the ordinance, which is not yet available online. Council members said that community concerns regarding “how the technology could be used to capture people’s faces without their consent and conduct widespread automated surveillance.”

In an open letter to the City Council ahead of today’s vote, 18 privacy-focused organisations including the ACLU of Minnesota, Amnesty International USA, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged legislators to follow through on the proposed ban. They wrote, in part:

Facial recognition technology poses a profound threat to personal privacy as well as political and religious expression. The technology systematically underperforms in recognising the faces of those who are not white men. These risks, in conjunction with a consideration of the technology’s performance flaws and algorithmic biases, lead us to urge the City Council to ban facial recognition technology.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last spring, the city garnered national attention as an example of the need for police reform. The City Council decided to cut the police department’s budget as a first step in the reform process as Black Lives Matter protests grew. Along with the presence of protests came concerns about police surveillance technology and the revelation that local cops had access to the Clearview AI’s controversial face recognition software, which indiscriminately uses images pulled from the open web, to identify suspects.

“Facial recognition technology works pretty well if you look like me – a middle-aged white man – but for everyone else, it can fail at rates that we would not accept anywhere else,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said in a statement. “It is unacceptable for us to subject people in our city – particularly women of colour – to such a high level of risk.”

It’s not totally clear what exceptions can be made for using the technology. The ban doesn’t apply to outside law enforcement agencies working in the city, but city police cannot knowingly use information gathered with the tech. MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo doesn’t seem very happy about this whole thing. Star Tribune reporter Libor Jany shared a statement from the chief in which he opines that the ordinance was “crafted and approved without any consideration or conversation, insight or feedback” from himself. He went on to hopefully insist that there’s still a way to find a balanced approach for his department to perform mega-dragnets without violating citizen’s rights. (There isn’t.)

While all local ordinances are different, Minneapolis joins at least 13 U.S. cities in banning police from using face recognition tech in one form or another.