The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts announced July 10 that it filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), and is “seeking information about how the agency uses and shares its state driver’s license database for face surveillance purposes.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, explained in a statement, “There’s a lot we don’t presently know about how government agencies like the [Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV)] use face surveillance in Massachusetts. But here’s what we do know: This technology poses grave threats to our civil rights and civil liberties by reinforcing gender and racial biases, and has the potential to eradicate privacy and anonymity in public spaces including schools, parks, and our neighborhood streets. Despite these grave threats, it is entirely unregulated in Massachusetts today. It’s time to press pause in Massachusetts, and pass a moratorium on government use of the technology.”

The organization, which has partnered with the law firm Ropes & Gray for the lawsuit, is alleging that since 2016 MassDOT has made its database of all state-issued ID photos available to local, state, and Federal law enforcement agencies for face surveillance purposes without “any regulations.”

“When you go to get a driver’s license, no one tells you that you’re also entering your face into a surveillance dragnet,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “People expect to be able to go about our lives without every move being tracked by the government. But face surveillance technology gives the government unprecedented power to track who we are, where we go, what we do, and who we know. Massachusetts must ensure face surveillance technology doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.”

In a release, the ACLU explained that the lawsuit is not its first attempt at getting more information about MassDOT’s policies and procedures. In February 2019, the ACLU filed a public records request under the Massachusetts public records law seeking communications and policies recording the use of face surveillance tech at MassDOT. The civil rights organization noted that it filed a second request in April 2019 seeking information about who has access to the database and whether MassDOT is sharing the photos with any other government agencies.  The ACLU said MassDOT has yet to respond to either request. In the lawsuit, the ACLU says that “responsive documents are the only means of understanding how this technology and its use have affected the civil rights and civil liberties of Massachusetts residents.”

The lawsuit falls in line with the ACLU of Massachusetts’s “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign, which is intended to “build awareness about the civil liberties concerns posed by face surveillance technology and the need to pass a statewide moratorium on the government’s use of the technology.” An ACLU-backed bill is now waiting for action from the Massachusetts state legislature. The ACLU noted that the City of Sommerville, Mass., has already passed an ordinance banning city government use of face surveillance technology.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.