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Take My Council, Please: To Face Brave New Worlds…

UPDATED 3:15PM: To include apparent confirmation the mayor supports the bill.

Springfield

(WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—After months of debate and false starts, the City Council approved a moratorium of sorts on the city’s use of facial recognition software. After a marathon session at the last meeting, the body set aside a separate time to debate the issue particularly. Leading up to Monday, the issue appeared set for a confrontation with Mayor Domenic Sarno. However, the sponsors announced that an agreement had been reached, which would appear to assure passage.

The ordinance was heavily modified, but effectively was slimmed down to mandate what Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Claprood had already promised. Originally the issue was prepared to sail to a quick passage. While it did finally pass Monday night, the facial recognition ordinance again became bogged down as councilors questioned some of the new language.

The vote came after a regularly scheduled hearings meeting at which the Council approved zone changes near the Eastfield Mall and raced through measures to renovate the Court Square Building.

On Tuesday morning, the mayor’s office released a statement that confirmed the existence of an agreement, suggesting he will be signing the bill.

Facial recognition software has become more widely available in recent years, especially to law enforcement agencies. That has raised concerns about civil liberties and increasingly civil rights as studies have shown people are color more likely to be misidentified by the technology as it exists now.

A recent documentaries on PBS and a report in The New York Times have shown the potential scale of this equipment in private hands. In government hands, it raises the fear of a police state. Consequently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has encouraged municipalities to pass their own bans and/or moratoria pending state action to regulate the technology.

Kade Crockford directs the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty Program. (via aclum.org)

According to Kade Crockford, the Director of Technology for Liberty at the ACLU of Massachusetts, assuming Sarno signs as indicated the bill, Springfield will become the fifth community put limits on the technology.

“Essentially, what this does is it exerts democratic control over the use of the technology, which thus far in most parts of the country, is not subject to any kind of democratic control,” Crockford said.

In its prior iteration, Sarno had vehemently opposed the ordinance, almost flying off the handle in doing so. Claprood was subtler, questioning the ordinance’s need. If it were to ever be implemented, she assured, she would almost certainly go before the Council for funds. That version of the ordinance essentially barred the use of the technology for five years—or longer depending on the reading. Should the technology be deemed ready before then, the Council would need to need a new ordinance to repeal the ban.

On Monday, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, the bill’s original sponsor, announced that an agreement with the mayor had been reached. Working with Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown, Ramos and the mayor’s staff came to an agreement of alternative language. Under the bill,the city, namely Pearl Street, cannot use facial technology until Claprood presents, and the Council approves, regulations on its use.

“In the meantime, if this [technology] is not regulated, this will not be used in the city of Springfield,” Ramos said.

At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman formally made the amendment. At City Solicitor Ed Pikula’s recommendation, some superfluous language was deleted.

Orlando Ramos

Are we there, yet? Yes, in fact!
Councilor Orlando Ramos, the ordinance’s lead sponsor in 2016. (WMP&I)

However, the ordinance nearly hit the skids over a provision intended to signal the city’s compliance with state and federal law. While Springfield would itself not use facial recognition in any way, the city would comply with the federal Amber alert (for missing children) and the state Silver alert (for missing seniors) even if that involved facial recognition on the parts of those governments.

Councilors Timothy Allen and Tracye Whitfield objected to only these age groups being exempted from the ordinance. However, as several councilors, as well as Crockford, attempted to point out, the city would do none of this work itself. Rather, it would just comply with federal and state efforts under these alert programs. Responding to Whitfield, Crockford claimed not to have any knowledge about alert programs for people between the ages of minority and seniority.

Councilors ultimately stripped the reference to state and federal law from the ordinance. Speaking to WMP&I, Crockford suggested the deletion has little practical effect.

Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila shifted the discussion to missing persons more generally, protesting the Police Department policy to not accept missing person reports for adults until the individual has been missing 48 hours. Nobody from the Police Department was on hand to speak about the policy. Solicitor Pikula said he would have to research the issue. (As a general matter, the Council could order the policy’s revision, assuming state law conflict exists).

A compromise in the hand is worth two in the bush. Councilor Kateri Walsh in 2017. (WMassP&I)

In the end, the Council opted to move forward. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, the body’s dean, said they should not pass up an opportunity to find compromise with the mayor.

“I think if you do not vote for this, you are squandering an opportunity to work together” with the mayor and administration, she said, perhaps a bit optimistically, “not only on this issue but other ones that come before us.”

Walsh was correct, however, that the bill represented a rare moment of détente with Sarno. After 9-4 vote to move to a final vote, the Council passed the facial recognition ordinance 11-2. Councilors Allen and Davila were the only dissenters. Even councilors like Whitfield and Marcus Williams, who both had misgivings, supported the legislation.

Recently, PBS’s Frontline program reported on Amazon and its facial recognition technology. Amazon had pitched its product to law enforcement as a tool to fight crime. However, because the identification technology remains flawed and erroneous, municipalities were actually signing themselves and their residents up to be guinea pigs in a massive road test for Amazon’s benefit.

Bow down before your new god? The Amazon spheres in Seattle. (via wikipedia)

Crockford told WMP&I the passage of Springfield’s bill showed that municipalities of all sizes and political cultures wanted to regulation of this technology. Brookline, Cambridge, Northampton and Somerville have passed bans and/or moratoria as well.

In addition, Crockford referred to polling the ACLU secured that showed upwards of 90% of Bay State residents wanted government to regulate facial recognition technology to prohibit its misuse.

“We are working with lawmakers on Beacon Hill to pass a statewide moratorium that would protect every resident and visitor in Massachusetts from the use of this dangerous technology until the state legislature can promulgate regulations that will protect the public interest, civil rights, civil liberties, racial justice,” Crockford said.

Indeed, the push for local bans is part of a wider, effort to get the commonwealth to step in and set statewide rules.

“The more communities that do this, the greater the pressure builds on the state legislature to take action to protect everyone,” Crockford added.

It appears Sarno has stuck to his pledge and the Council can put this matter is put behind it. The implications for residents are paramount, but the very vastness of the issue underscores the body’s growing challenge.

Stairs

(WMP&I)

As the principal sounding board for city residents, particularly those from marginal populations, the Council faces increasing pressure to lean more heavily into policy and lawmaking than before. It is not just arguably internal issues or concerns like employee residency or a biomass plant. Exogenous threats from the federal government or multinational corporations now menace Springfield and, increasingly, residents expect the Council to act to protect them.