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Baltimore City Council approves moratorium on facial recognition technology; city police exempt from ban

The Baltimore City Council passed a bill Monday that would create a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology, with a notable exception for the city police department.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, would bar the use of the technology by residents, businesses and most of city government until December 2022. However, Baltimore police, who use such technology via the Maryland Image Repository System, would be exempt; the City Council doesn’t have legal authority over the department, as it’s technically a state agency.

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Despite that circumstance, much of the discussion around the bill has centered on law enforcement’s use of the technology. Burnett and other supporters cited studies showing it’s less accurate when it attempts to identify Black and brown faces, as well as those of people with disabilities.

During a news conference earlier this month, Burnett expressed concerns that private users could sell data to databases, such as the Maryland Image Repository System. The state-administered system includes Maryland driver’s license photos, photos of state prison inmates and police mug shots, and officers use its software to compare those images to ones of people they need to identify.

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Burnett also said there were issues of privacy for people in the city.

“The question that remains is a moral question, an ethical question,” he said. “Is that the right thing to do? Should people just be able to walk down the street, walk to the harbor, walk through their neighborhood, wherever they are in the city of Baltimore, and just be able to do that without worrying that they are now being surveilled?”

Councilmembers voted 12-2 in favor of the bill which, if signed by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, would be effective 30 days after its passage.

The bill includes numerous exceptions, including one for law enforcement at Port of Baltimore, due to federally mandated security requirements.

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Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer opposed the bill. He’s said it would unfairly harm businesses, like banks that use the technology to prevent fraud and the hotel industry that uses it to fight human trafficking, while doing nothing to address the more controversial use by police.

Several trade groups weighed in against the bill as it made its way to Monday’s vote, including the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which argued it would have serious implications for businesses and for individuals, including people with disabilities, who use the technology to help recognize others.

“If Baltimore proceeds with this proposal, it will develop a reputation as a city openly hostile to technological innovation,” the group argued in a news release.

Democratic Councilman Eric Costello joined Schleifer in voting against the bill, which council members did not debate Monday. Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey was absent from the meeting.

The bill was Burnett’s second attempt at restricting the use of facial recognition technology. A similar bill died last year in committee after members raised concerns it would impact the city police department’s use of the state repository. Burnett argued then that city police wouldn’t be affected, but some of his colleagues were unconvinced.

However, the city is now on the verge of regaining control of the department, and Burnett has said he intends to pursue a ban on the technology for the agency if that happens.

Since 1860, the state of Maryland has governed city police, rather than the city government. But earlier this year, state legislators passed a bill that will place a question on city ballots in either 2022 or 2024, asking Baltimore voters whether control should return to local officials.

“Our anticipation is if the city does take over the police department, we want to have more oversight, and accountability and transparency — not only for the public, but for the council — so they have a better understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Burnett said.

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