Citing concerns about its reliability and potential to harm communities of color, the Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and other city agencies.
In doing so, the city joined places like Portland, Ore., Boston and Alameda, Calif., that have already outlawed or limited use of the technology, which employs complex algorithms to automatically detect human faces from surveillance cameras, social media and other sources and match them to names. Research has found that the software sometimes has trouble correctly identifying Black and Latino people.
Friday's unanimous vote was something of a formality after the new ordinance cleared a final hurdle earlier this week when it passed through the Policy & Government Oversight Committee.
The ordinance, which prohibits city employees from acquiring or using outside facial recognition systems, doesn't go as far as Portland's ban, which also bars its use by private businesses, according to Chris Weyland, an organizer with POSTME (Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology and Military Equipment), the coalition that spearheaded a monthslong effort to draft the ordinance. But he said the ordinance is still broad enough to prevent the MPD — the only known city department to use facial recognition — from going through a third party like the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, as it has done in the past.
"It would also prevent them from requesting that other people use it, and it would also prevent them from using the results," Weyland said.
Exceptions would be made for more benign applications, such as to access a secure building or unlock a smartphone, he said. And recognizing that technology is always advancing, the ordinance creates a formal process by which a city agency can apply to add "an exemption for something that we didn't think of," he said.
But in a strongly worded statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that the ban was "crafted and approved without any consideration or conversation, insight or feedback" from him.
"Chief Arradondo believes that through open minded, thoughtful and deliberate research, examination and mutually respectful engagement by both elected and public safety professionals on this important technology tool, we can arrive at a place where its application can be utilized in accordance with data privacy and other citizen legal protections," the statement said.
Munira Mohamed, a policy associate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said that the organization had brought up the matter during its quarterly meetings with Arradondo and representatives of the City Attorney's Office.
"We've just in the past week spoken with the mayor's office and his policy director and we were hoping that they would reach out to the police chief as well," she said in response to Arradondo's statement.
The ordinance is a significant win for privacy advocates, who in recent years have orchestrated similar bans in a small, but growing list of U.S. cities. Atop that list is Portland, whose City Council last fall passed a sweeping ban that is widely considered the strictest in the nation. It bars not only law enforcement use but also prohibits private businesses from collecting, using or storing all biometric information gathered about people in public places.
Minneapolis' version doesn't go as far, officials say, but like Portland's it bans the use of third-party vendors like the controversial startup Clearview AI. Most systems work by using machine learning algorithms to analyze and create a virtual map of people's faces, which can then be compared against a mug shot database. By using Clearview's software, a police agency can run facial recognition searches through the company's database of billions of photos scraped from Facebook, YouTube and Google — potentially ensnaring people who have never been charged with a crime, critics say.
While Twin Cities law enforcement agencies are still behind other jurisdictions in using facial recognition tools, a Star Tribune analysis found that local, state and federal agencies have run nearly 1,000 searches through the Sheriff's Office's facial recognition system since 2018. More than half of those searches came in the first nine months of 2020 alone. The MPD, by far the agency's biggest client, has for years deflected questions about its use of the technology. In 2018, a spokesperson told the Star Tribune that the department had no plans to use the technology, but county records now show that MPD personnel have accessed facial recognition software 237 times over the past five years.
With the help of facial recognition, even a grainy image captured on a security camera or social media account can lead investigators to a suspect who might otherwise have gone undetected. Proponents say the technology has been used to identify suspects in violent crimes like homicides and murders, and Reuters reported that private firms used it last month to help the FBI identify supporters of former President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
But studies have found that many systems misidentify people of color at a disproportionately high rate. And critics say that even with safeguards, they worry an expansion of government surveillance powers could widen existing criminal-justice disparities.
William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor, said that Minneapolis' ban puts it ahead of many other cities in addressing the potential misuse of facial recognition and other biometric data collection. At the same time, he said, lawmakers in several states have tried and failed to pass facial recognition laws, most recently Massachusetts, whose governor vetoed a police reform bill because it included a provision banning law enforcement use of the technology.
There are growing calls for studying and addressing racial biases in the algorithms that drive such technology, he said.
"It is thought possible that conscientious work could improve these algorithms to the point where they don't return these biased results, but people who favor a moratorium say: 'Fix it first,' " he said.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany