Is the R.I. Department of Labor and Training (DLT) planning to use facial recognition technology to process unemployment claims? The agency doesn’t want the public to know, so the ACLU of Rhode Island today filed an open records lawsuit to find out. The suit is in response to the DLT’s refusal to provide the ACLU any documents in response to an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request that sought records related to the agency’s “actual or considered usage of facial recognition and identify verification software … in the course of processing unemployment claims.”

The APRA request, submitted in August by ACLU of RI Policy Associate Hannah Stern, was in response to news reports indicating that numerous states have begun using this privacy-invasive technology to process unemployment claims. The APRA request also sought any information the Department had examined regarding the “operational effectiveness or accuracy rate” of any facial recognition products being considered, as the accuracy of this technology, particularly for people of color, is a matter of great controversy. Citing a trio of statutes, however, the Department responded that all the requested documents were “confidential by law” and would not be released.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys C. Alexander Chiulli and Hilary White, notes that all three laws cited by DLT for withholding all their records are designed to protect the privacy of unemployment compensation claimants, but that the APRA request “does not seek information related to any individual employee, participant, recipient, applicant, or citizen involved” with DLT.  Concluding that “there is no legal basis” for denying the records, the ACLU suit seeks the imposition of civil fines and a court order requiring DLT to release the documents “forthwith” at no cost.

The ACLU’s Stern said today: “Facial recognition technology in any context has huge implications for privacy and civil liberties. The DLT’s refusal to release documents about its potential use is not only contrary to tenets of governmental transparency, but it also means that the agency believes it can implement intrusive surveillance tools without any public oversight. At a bare minimum, residents should have the right to know when invasive technologies are being considered or used and any policies guiding their usage. Concealing this information unacceptably undermines the public’s right to know.”

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Chiulli added: “The DLT’s interest in protecting the privacy of claimants is commendable. However, its misuse of statutes in order to conceal important information from the public is untenable. This lawsuit seeks to redress the agency’s clear violation of the open records law.”

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