Banning Facial Recognition Could Undermine Health and Safety

On May 27, the Baltimore City Council Public Safety and Government Operations Committee passed an ordinance that would ban the use of facial recognition technology in the city, a move that would greatly endanger Baltimore residents’ safety.

Under the new ordinance, Baltimore’s residents and law enforcement officials would be prohibited from “obtaining, retaining, accessing, or using certain face surveillance technology or any information obtained from certain face surveillance technology.” Passing this ordinance makes Baltimore the second city after Portland to apply a criminal penalty to the use of facial recognition technology. In explaining the decision, sponsors of the bill argued the technology “raises real privacy concerns,” stating that “issues have been raised around the accuracy of recognizing black and brown faces, people with disabilities, as well as trans people.”

While Councilmembers’ concerns for the freedoms of residents are well-founded, facial recognition technology offers many practical applications that would benefit consumers and businesses. However, these benefits will be eliminated with this ban, lowering consumer safety, and potentially increasing crime rates.

Rather than banning the use of facial recognition, the legislators of Baltimore should instead support a common-sense policy that safeguards the innovative services it brings while also protecting Baltimore’s resident’s privacy.

The use of facial recognition has proved to be very effective at enhancing public safety. According to the recovery systems producer LoJack, nearly 4,000 vehicles were stolen in Baltimore in 2020. Facial recognition technology in vehicles protects against theft by recognizing the owner’s face and refusing to start if an unauthorized person enters the vehicle. Without the use of these systems in automobiles, more crimes have the potential to be committed, inflicting severe financial harm to consumers in the city.

Banks also utilize this technology to verify consumer identity and protect consumers from identity theft, which cost consumers $56 billion last year. In addition to using facial recognition to monitor sensitive areas of a branch to protect against theft, banking institutions have also started incorporating this technology into ATMs and online banking applications to increase security. With this technology in use, it becomes significantly harder for criminals to steal money from consumers. Banning the private use of facial recognition would prevent financial institutions in Baltimore from fully protecting consumers from financial crimes.

Law enforcement has also used facial recognition to great effect in identifying suspects involved in crimes like human trafficking. In 2019, for example, a law enforcement officer in California used facial recognition to identify a missing girl in online sex advertisements, helping police to find and rescue her. Outlawing the use of this technology has the potential to decrease the likelihood of identifying Baltimore residents who fall victim to this terrible crime, making it extremely important that this technology remains in use.

Instead of banning facial recognition technology, city council members in Baltimore should explore ways to address residents’ privacy and bias concerns while still ensuring this innovative technology can continue to be used to benefit the public.

To reach this goal, regulations over the use of facial recognition technology needs to be transparent and specific. The Technology Engagement Center of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has proposed a regulatory framework that measures specific-use cases over a one-size-fits-all blanket regulation. Identifying each risk increases consumer knowledge and protects residents against potential harms while simultaneously encouraging its development. Baltimore legislators should follow this template and prioritize specific case rules that are consistent and clear to businesses and consumers so that this technology can continue to be used for the benefit of residents.

While privacy and bias concerns from Baltimore lawmakers are reasonable, they should not be grounds for an outright ban on a technology that offers enhanced public safety. Instead, city council members need to ensure the technology can continue benefiting consumers while guaranteeing citizens’ freedoms are upheld. Choosing to ban the technology could cause real harm to the people of Baltimore by lowering their safety and security.

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