Baltimore City Council holds hearings on facial recognition technology


By Tashi McQueen,
AFRO Political Writer,

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (D-District 8) is lead sponsor of two bills aimed at regulating facial recognition technology (FRT), currently being used in the city for surveillance. After six years of fighting to pass legislation on this matter, Burnett may soon succeed.

“There are two bills that [address] the need for more accountability and transparency and how surveillance technology is being used in Baltimore City – in the public and private sector,” said Burnett to the press on Nov. 15 after the hearings. “We have a reliance on technology, but we don’t fully understand how it works or how it can be used to create harm.  In the name of trying to create a safer society, we may be creating more harm to people through misidentification – and the misuse and abuse of data.”

Burnett said he is concerned with many aspects of facial recognition technology, including identity theft and data selling, which is what his FRT regulation and Community Advisory Commission on Surveillance bills attempt to address.

“Facial recognition systems create a map of a person’s face in the same way that your fingerprints are mapped,” said Burnett. “These systems capture facial images or videos and through that, the artificial intelligence embedded in the technology maps out the distance between your eyes and other facial features.”

Burnett said the system compares the captured image to a database, providing a likely match.

“In its current form, human processors will conduct an analysis of these matches, which in some instances can continue to be a problem when it comes to getting the right person,” said Burnett. 

During the hearing Andrew Northrup, of the Maryland Office of Public Defender, detailed how challenging facial recognition can be and how biases can show up, hindering any accuracy.

“Kirk Bloodsworth was the guy who was convicted of rape and murder and was sentenced to death. He was exonerated by DNA,” said Northrup. “The investigation started from a tentative idea off of a photograph. By the time it got to trial, there were five witnesses who said ‘I know it’s him.’”

The Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of people surveyed recently believe crime in the U.S. would believe crime in the U.S. would stay the same, even with facial recognition technology in the hands of police. 

The FRT regulation legislation includes public entity regulations, licensure and law enforcement regulations. The bill, as written, requires a license for private entities to use facial recognition technologies and put up signage so people can choose whether they enter that establishment or not.

Organizing Black, a Baltimore-based grassroots organization fighting for Black liberation, spread the word about the FRT legislation hearings, advocating for citizen attendance.

“Organizing Black thinks about the proliferation of this technology as one step further in the long arm of the surveillance and criminalization of Black people through Baltimore City and the United States,” said Samantha Master, communications manager of Organizing Black. “That’s why we’re mobilizing folks to shut it down and stop the city’s ability to acquire and [increase] this software.”

“Nowhere in public space should people fear being surveilled by their government,” continued Master. “It attempts to match them with criminal databases, which identifies Black, Latino and darker skin people more often than not. It is an infringement on our right to be in a public space without being presumed criminal.”

Danielle McCray, chair of the Health, Environment and Technology Committee, and Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, said there will be additional hearings on the two bills.

Tashi McQueen is a Report for America Corps Member.


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