Potential ban on face surveillance tech in Madison concerns police

Acting police chief speaks out against ordinance, Alder defends it as protecting privacy & civil liberties
Published: Nov. 11, 2020 at 12:39 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2020 at 6:33 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Alders with Madison’s Common Council are considering banning the use of face surveillance technology by all city departments.

The proposed ordinance defines face surveillance as “an automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying or verifying an individual, or in capturing information about an individual, based on the physical characteristics of an individual’s face.”

District 18 Alder Rebecca Kemble is a sponsor of the ordinance. She worries that if this topic isn’t addressed now, the protection of citizen’s civil liberties and privacy will be put at risk in the future.

“Thus far we aren’t aware of any City of Madison department directly employing face recognition technology. But the departments that might utilize it in the future are all those that utilize cameras. This includes Traffic Engineering, Water Utility, Police, Monona Terrace, Community Development Authority, Parking Utility and possibly some others," Kemble told NBC15 in a written statement.

The potential ban is raising concerns at the Madison Police Department. Detectives at MPD work with external partners who use face surveillance to solve crimes. Acting Chief Vic Wahl says this ban would force them to halt those efforts.

“The main circumstance where we use it is dealing with child victims. Whether it’s human trafficking investigations or child pornography investigations,” says Wahl. He notes that while the technology is new to them, it’s already proven useful.

“There’s been some success stories that we’ve had, that other agencies have had where literally children that are in human trafficking situations… horrific, horrific environments have been located and rescued purely because of the technology,” says Wahl.

Alder Kemble expressed concern that the nature of this type of software crosses a line when it comes to privacy. “We do not want Madison to be a place where people become walking ID cards, vulnerable to unwarranted surveillance. Our research showed that this technology is unreliable and misidentifies people, especially people with darker skin,” stated Kemble.

Chief Wahl responded to those concerns, saying it’s important to recognize that this technology is still evolving. “It’s so new that it’s hard to predict other uses for it down the road. But if you pick any technology you like 5 years ago and compare it to now, it’s night and day in terms of improvement and enhancement,” says Wahl.

Next Wednesday, Chief Wahl is meeting with the Public Safety Review Committee to voice his opinions before any final decisions are made. “Hopefully that will get us to a better place where whatever is being considered meets everybody’s needs,” says Wahl.

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