A Second U.S. City Has Banned Facial Recognition

Somerville, which neighbors Cambridge, Massachusetts, just joined San Francisco in banning the use of facial recognition.
Security camera.
Image: Libreshot 

Somerville, Massachusetts just became the second U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition in public space.

The "Face Surveillance Full Ban Ordinance," which passed through Somerville's City Council on Thursday night, forbids any “department, agency, bureau, and/or subordinate division of the City of Somerville” from using facial recognition software in public spaces. The ordinance passed Somerville’s Legislative Matters Committee on earlier this week.


The ordinance defines facial surveillance as “an automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying an individual, capturing information about an individual, based on the physical characteristics of an individual’s face,” which is operationally equivalent to facial recognition.

San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by police and city government agencies a month ago, making it the first U.S. city to do so. The success of a similar ordinance from Somerville shows that there’s momentum in major U.S. cities behind the idea that we shouldn’t just regulate the use of facial recognition, but ban it entirely.

Kade Crockford, director of the technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a phone call that at the state level, the ACLU is advocating for a moratorium or pause of facial recognition technology, while at the local level, the ACLU is advocating for bans.

“At the municipal level, it’s different,” Crockford said. “State governments have the capacity to regulate, whereas local governments really don’t. They don’t have the ability, for example, to create new institutions that could oversee, with sufficient care and attention, the implementation of an oversight or accountability system to guard against civil rights and civil liberties abuses.”

There are currently 30 locations in Somerville that are outfitted with surveillance cameras, and these locations are mapped on Somerville’s city website.

According to Somerville's Executive Policy on Surveillance Technology, which has been in effect since October 2017, any use of surveillance in the city has to have public use and privacy policies, data sharing information, and yearly use reports. Similar ordinances have passed in nine other cities, and in Santa Clara County, CA.

Next month, Oakland, California will vote on an ordinance that could enact a similar facial recognition technology ban.