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Banning facial recognition technology: Baltimore’s bad idea | COMMENTARY

CyberLink showcases their cross-platform artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology at CES International in Las Vegas in 2019. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
CyberLink showcases their cross-platform artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology at CES International in Las Vegas in 2019. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Not to be outdone by San Francisco; Portland, Oregon, or several other contenders, Baltimore is now considering the nation’s most restrictive ban on facial recognition technology. Passed on May 27 by the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Government Operations, the proposed ordinance would not just prevent city government from acquiring facial recognition technology, but also ban most commercial uses, thereby cutting off city businesses, workers and residents from a wide range of beneficial applications.

Baltimore’s proposed ordinance contains a few carve outs that would allow facial recognition to be used for unlocking access to a physical location or electronic device, but it would limit nearly every other use of the technology. This includes many applications designed to increase public safety and security, improve accessibility for people with disabilities and create more convenient experiences for consumers.

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There are a number of ways city governments can use facial recognition that would benefit the public. Law enforcement can use the technology to find missing persons, catch identity thieves, improve security in crowded venues and identify victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime. Libraries can offer residents the option to replace library cards with facial recognition, making the process of checking out books quicker and easier. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, government agencies can explore new ways to make its processes more accurate and efficient. But cities that prohibit these uses, as Baltimore is considering, will never unlock these opportunities because they legislated out of fear instead of taking a targeted, fact-based approach.

Baltimore’s proposal would also impede businesses’ ability to provide innovative new services at a time when the economy is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. A variety of sectors are exploring how they can implement facial recognition technology to increase security and convenience. For example, the hospitality industry can use facial recognition to provide guests a more personalized experience, and retailers can automate the checkout process and stop shoplifters.

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The technology also protects consumers from fraud. Credit card companies can use the technology to verify their customers’ online purchases, and banks can verify their customers’ identity. If the city outlaws the technology, identity thieves will not hesitate to exploit this weakness to target Baltimoreans.

Facial recognition technology also promises to help people with certain disabilities navigate the world more easily. Apps utilizing the technology allow individuals with blindness, memory loss, or prosopagnosia (face blindness) to recognize people they know.

And these are just some of the early applications of this technology. As facial recognition technology continues to develop, it will provide even more benefits, along with improved accuracy.

Rushed technology bans can have unintended consequences. In May 2019, San Francisco banned law enforcement use of the technology, but later rolled back part of its law after city supervisors realized they had accidentally prohibited city workers from using certain iPhones.

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Baltimore’s proposed ordinance goes even further than any other city in the United States—including Portland, which in September 2020 banned government use of facial recognition as well as private use in public spaces—creating an almost total limit on public, private and commercial uses.

Why are people so concerned about the technology? Many of the concerns surrounding facial recognition stem from reports that facial recognition algorithms are biased and that their use will lead to racial profiling. However, analysis of nearly 200 facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that, while lower quality, less-accurate facial recognition algorithms do display bias, the most accurate algorithms have low false positives and negatives, and undetectable differences among demographics.

Privacy advocates have also tried to tie facial recognition bans to calls for police reform, but this idea makes little sense. Facial recognition technology is more accurate than humans. Banning its use would undercut efforts to reduce the size of police departments and decrease racial bias in policing.

The facts surrounding facial recognition support targeted rules surrounding its use, such as setting performance and image quality standards when used by government, especially law enforcement. And starting with limited pilots of the technology would allow agencies and the public to evaluate its effectiveness and impact in the real world.

But banning the technology for all but a limited number of uses, especially commercial and personal uses, is a short-sighted overreaction that only considers the risks and not the vast benefits. If Baltimore goes through with its ban, it will set itself apart as a city that fears innovation and change instead of embracing it.

Ashley Johnson (ajohnson@itif.org) is a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank for science and technology policy.

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