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City Council Members Urge Passage Of Surveillance Technology Ban

CASA de Maryland members speak at a Thursday news conference in support of Councilman Kristerfer Burnett's bill to ban the use of facial recognition technology by Baltimore City agencies.
Courtesy of Yaslin Machuca, Office of Odette Ramos
CASA de Maryland members speak at a Thursday news conference in support of Councilman Kristerfer Burnett's bill to ban the use of facial recognition technology by Baltimore City agencies.

Several city council members, along with progressive city groups, gathered outside City Hall Thursday to urge the passage of Councilman Kristerfer Burnett’s second attempt to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the Baltimore City government.

“Until we fully research the full impact that facial recognition technology can have on our communities, we must take responsible action and press the ‘pause button’ on its use in Baltimore City,” Burnett said at a news conference. “We’ve seen the impact that misidentification and technological bias has had on people across the country and we must act now to prevent potential harm to our residents.”

Ralikh Hayes, the Deputy Director of Organizing Black, called the bill an important first step in dismantling the surveillance that Black communities face. He said the city should disinvest in technology that studies show generates inaccurate results and reapply those funds to “things that we know work,” such as SafeStreets and mental health services.

“We have to realign our priorities and figure out what safety really means,” Hayes said. “I’m hopeful that this council will have deep discussions about reimagining public safety.”

Burnett’s bill would prohibit non-police city agencies from employing the technology, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze faces by cross-referencing images from databases such as mugshots or driver’s license photos. Multiple studies have found these algorithms misidentify people of color at a higher rate than white people.

The Baltimore Police Department, which is opposed to the bill, is controlled by the state, not city, meaning the council does not have the authority to outright ban the agency from using it, though the bill can force annual audits about its use. Maryland’s General Assembly passed a bill during its last session that allows city residents to vote in either 2022 or 2024 on whether they want control of the department restored to the city.

BPD, along with the Department of Transportation, uses the Maryland Image Repository System, a software that compares images of unidentified suspects to state and FBI mugshots, as well as motor vehicle records, in investigations. The software is maintained by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

A report published last fall by the the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the AI algorithms are best at correctly identifying white middle-aged men, but have higher rates of false positives for Asian, Black and Native people. A 2018 report from MIT found that some algorithms misidentified Black women nearly 35% of the time, while almost always correctly identifying white men.

Those findings have serious implications for people of color, Joy Buolamwini, one of the authors of the MIT report, told the council at a hearing last year. She pointed to a Detroit man who was wrongfully arrested for robbery after he was misidentified by facial recognition software from a grainy video of a robbery.

“In one test, I ran on Amazon's AI [facial recognition algorithm,] they found the face of Oprah Winfrey male,” Buolamwini, a Black woman, said. “I personally had to wear a white mask to have my face detected.”

Burnett’s attempt to pass a similar bill during the council’s last term failed. He introduced this iteration last year, but the Public Safety and Government Operations committee didn’t pass it until last week.

The progressive Democrat was joined Thursday by Council members Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey and Odette Ramos, as well as members of Organizing Black, CASA de Maryland and the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Representatives from CASA spoke about facial recognition technology’s potential for immigrants. Diana, a Baltimorean who immigrated to the city eight years ago and who only identified herself by her first name, said City Hall should invest in programs that benefit immigrants, not potentially harm them.

“We have been witness to the great mistakes that some police officers have made when it comes to the immigrant community and we cannot allow this technology to continue,” she said through an interpreter. “I am here today lifting my voice for my family and my community.”

In a letter to the Public Safety and Government Operations committee, representatives from BPD and the city’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter said that an outright ban on the technology would remove a “valuable tool needed to fight violent crime” that is a single aspect of investigations.

“A positive identification utilizing facial recognition alone is not enough to generate probable cause for arrest, let alone prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction,” Sgt. Bobby Cherry and Detective Eric Perez, chairmen of the FOP legislative committee, wrote.

The bill can appear before the City Council as early as next week’s meeting; the agenda for that meeting has not yet been finalized.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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