Time to enact new rules for use of facial recognition software

Guardrails needed for powerful, but imperfect, technology

LAST NOVEMBER, on the day after Thanksgiving, yet another Black man was wrongfully arrested due to racially biased face surveillance. Randall Reid was detained on his way to dinner with his mother after Louisiana law enforcement agents got a warrant based on a false facial recognition match. He spent a week in jail. 

Mr. Reid is not the first innocent person to be arrested based on a failed facial recognition match. In late February, Wired magazine published details of another case—Alonzo Sawyer, a 50-year-old Black man arrested for a crime allegedly committed by someone decades his junior.

We don’t know how many people in total have been wrongfully arrested due to police misuse of facial recognition technology, but a disturbing pattern has emerged. In every known case, the people wrongfully arrested were Black men. One of those men—Robert Williams—considers himself lucky, even though he was handcuffed and hauled away by police in front of his wife and young girls, and locked up for 30 hours. As a Black man, he knows the consequences of a false match could have been deadly. 

As Massachusetts state senators, we are resolved to make sure this never happens in our state. Thankfully, a special state legislative commission has carefully studied the issues surrounding this technology and delivered a thorough report about how to fix the problem—with recommendations endorsed by law enforcement, civil rights advocates, and academic experts. Now it’s up to lawmakers. We should follow the commission’s roadmap and adopt their recommendations without delay. 

Facial recognition technology is dangerous when it works and when it doesn’t. Study after study—and the real-life experiences of several people who never should have been arrested—show that this technology exhibits racial and gender-based biases. One study found that some leading face recognition algorithms were up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Black and Asian people than white men.  

Recognizing the dangers of this technology, Massachusetts lawmakers began to regulate government use of facial recognition technology in 2020, and established the commission to examine whether additional civil rights protections were needed to appropriately safeguard police use of this powerful technology. Last year, after more than a year of study and deliberation, the Special Commission to Evaluate Government Use of Facial Recognition Technology in the Commonwealth—which included lawmakers, police officers, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, and more—concluded that Massachusetts does need tighter regulation.  

The commission’s recommendations include centralizing all police use of facial recognition technology at the Massachusetts State Police, requiring a warrant for facial recognition searches, limiting searches to felony investigations, instituting clear due process protections, and prohibiting dragnet surveillance. It is rare to see the attorney general’s office, the State Police, NAACP, ACLU, Massachusetts Bar Association, and public defender’s office lining up together, but that’s exactly what this commission achieved with its compromise recommendations. We enthusiastically support them, as well, and we are grateful to our colleague Sen. Creem for filing legislation to implement them and for her continued leadership on this critical civil rights issue. 

After all, as senators of color, we represent communities that stand to gain the most from these recommendations becoming law. Our communities deserve safety, both from violence and from wrongful targeting by police.

We believe the police should make use of new technologies if they can help solve serious crimes, and we also believe technologies like face surveillance will cause serious harm to Bay Staters if the Legislature doesn’t step in to impose comprehensive civil rights protections. That’s why we are proud to cosponsor Sen. Creem’s bill to codify the commission’s recommendations. We look forward to working with our colleagues to pass it early this session.  

Today, Massachusetts state law doesn’t do enough to ensure that the wrongful deprivation of liberty suffered by Mr. Reid, Mr. Sawyer, and Mr. Williams doesn’t happen here. But legislation that would create necessary checks and balances is awaiting our vote, and we urge our colleagues to support it.

Meet the Author

Lydia Edwards

State senator, East Boston
Meet the Author

Adam Gomez

State senator, Springfield
Meet the Author

Liz Miranda

State representative , Boston
Three years ago, our Commonwealth started the good work of putting democratic guardrails around police use of this powerful but imperfect technology. Now, it’s time to get the job done. 

Lydia Edwards is a state senator from East Boston. Adam Gomez is state senator from Springfield. Liz Miranda is a state senator from Roxbury.