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Massachusetts governor won’t sign facial recognition ban

He argues technology is necessary for police work

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has refused to sign a law banning most government use of facial recognition. The Boston Globe reported last week that Baker sent an omnibus police reform bill back to state lawmakers, asking for changes that included striking the facial recognition rules.

Massachusetts legislators passed the first major state-level facial recognition ban, following a model set by individual cities like Boston and San Francisco. The bill says public agencies, including police departments, can’t use or acquire biometric surveillance systems. It makes exceptions for running facial recognition searches against a motor vehicles registration database, as long as police obtain a warrant or demonstrate “immediate danger” that requires a search. It would help fill a gap left by federal lawmakers, who haven’t passed a nationwide framework for using potentially invasive facial recognition technologies.

But in a letter to lawmakers, Baker said the reform package “ignores the important role [facial recognition] can play in solving crime.” His office told the Globe that he plans to veto the bill if lawmakers don’t make changes.

Facial recognition is just one facet of the sweeping bill, which aims to reform police tactics, training, and accountability. The package would create a new oversight commission to investigate misconduct and potentially revoke officers’ licenses, and it would restrict the use of chokeholds, rubber bullets, and tear gas. In addition to the facial recognition ban, Baker objected to policies like shifting police training oversight to a civilian-led committee.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts urged lawmakers to reject the proposed changes. “Governor Baker rejected a crucial due process provision that would protect Massachusetts residents from unregulated police use of face surveillance technology, which has been proven to unfairly target Black and brown people, leading to the arrest of innocent people. Unchecked police use of surveillance technology also harms everyone’s rights to anonymity, privacy, and free speech,” said executive director Carol Rose.