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The city of Baltimore has banned the use of facial recognition systems by residents, businesses and the city government (except for police). The criminalisation in a major U.S. city of an important emerging technology in the physical security industry is an extreme example of the continuing backlash against facial recognition throughout the United States.

Facial recognition technology ban

Several localities – from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco, from Oakland, California, to Boston – have moved to limit use of the technology, and privacy groups have even proposed a national moratorium on use of facial recognition.

The physical security industry, led by the Security Industry Association (SIA), vigorously opposed the ban in Baltimore, urging a measured approach and ‘more rational policymaking’ that preserve the technology’s value while managing any privacy or other concerns.

Physical security industry opposes ban

In such cases, it is local businesses and residents who stand to lose the most"

Unfortunately, an outright ban on facial recognition continues a distressing pattern in which the clear value of this technology is ignored,” said SIA’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Don Erickson, adding “In such cases, it is local businesses and residents who stand to lose the most.

At the national level, a letter to US President Biden from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Coalition asserts the need for a national dialogue over the appropriate use of facial recognition technology and expresses concern about ‘a blanket moratorium on federal government use and procurement of the technology’. (The coalition includes Security Industry Association (SIA) and other industry groups.)

The negativity comes at a peak moment for facial recognition and other biometric technologies, which saw an increase of interest for a variety of public and business applications, during the COVID-19 pandemic’s prioritisation to improve public health hygiene and to promote ‘contactless’ technologies.

Prohibition on banks, retailers and online sellers

The ordinance in Baltimore prohibits banks from using facial recognition to enhance consumer security in financial transactions. It prevents retailers from accelerating checkout lines with contactless payment and prohibits remote online identity document verification, which is needed by online sellers or gig economy workers, according to the Security Industry Association (SIA).

At a human level, SIA points out that the prohibition of facial recognition undermines the use of customised accessibility tools for disabled persons, including those suffering with blindness, memory loss or prosopagnosia (face blindness).

Ban out of line with current state of facial recognition

Addressing the Baltimore prohibition, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reacted to the measure as ‘shockingly out of line with the current state of facial recognition technology and its growing adoption in many sectors of the economy’.

Before Baltimore’s decision to target facial recognition, Portland, Oregon, had perhaps the strictest ban, prohibiting city government agencies and private businesses from using the technology on the city’s grounds. San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban the technology, with Boston, Oakland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Berkeley, California, among others, following suit.

Police and federal units can use biometrics

Unlike other bans, the Baltimore moratorium does not apply to police uses

Unlike other bans, the Baltimore moratorium does not apply to police uses, but targets private uses of the technology. It also includes a one-year ‘sunset’ clause that requires city council approval for an extension. The measure carves out an exemption for use of biometrics in access control systems.

However, violations of the measure are punishable by 12 months in jail. The law also establishes a task force to evaluate the cost and effectiveness of surveillance tools.

Transparency in public sector use of facial recognition

Currently, the state of Maryland controls the Baltimore Police Department, so the city council does not have authority to ban police use of facial recognition, which has been a human rights concern driving the bans in other jurisdictions. A measure to return local control of police to the city could pass before the year lapses.

SIA advocates transparency in public-sector applications of facial recognition in identity verification, security and law enforcement investigative applications. SIA’s CEO, Don Erickson stated, “As public sector uses are more likely to be part of processes with consequential outcomes, it is especially important for transparency and sound policies to accompany government applications.

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Larry Anderson Editor, SecurityInformed.com & SourceSecurity.com

An experienced journalist and long-time presence in the US security industry, Larry is SourceSecurity.com's eyes and ears in the fast-changing security marketplace, attending industry and corporate events, interviewing security leaders and contributing original editorial content to the site. He leads SourceSecurity.com's team of dedicated editorial and content professionals, guiding the "editorial roadmap" to ensure the site provides the most relevant content for security professionals.

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