SACRAMENTO – At the behest of civil rights and civil liberties groups, California Democrats are pressing to ban facial recognition technology that law enforcement says could better protect nearly 40 million residents and the state’s countless tourist destinations.
Hatched from the tech industry’s home turf in Silicon Valley, the groups’ plan is to keep the facial recognition technology out of law enforcement’s arsenal. Critics say the technology turns police officers into “roving surveillance devices” and that the nascent technology is biased toward minorities.
California’s influential law enforcement lobby counters a ban on the technology in its infancy would be heavy-handed and blatantly un-Californian. Instead, the law enforcement community wants the opportunity to work with the tech industry and cities to find acceptable uses for facial recognition and biometric technology going forward.
The dispute intensified Tuesday as California Democrats voted to prohibit the use of facial recognition in body cameras, setting the proposed ban up for a final vote on the state Senate floor this summer.
Assembly Bill 1215 cleared the Assembly last month without a single Republican vote and again Tuesday in a state Senate committee.
The bill’s author, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, told the Senate Public Safety Committee that the technology simply isn’t ready for “prime time.” He offered as proof a 2018 test conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in which Amazon’s facial recognition product incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with the mugshots of other people.
“What we don’t want is for communities to feel like they’re under surveillance 24 hours, 7 days a week when the officers’ body cameras are being worn,” Ting said.
During the 20-minute committee discussion on Ting’s bill, law enforcement groups tried to brush back the privacy and civil liberties concerns flagged by the bill’s proponents.
Two law enforcement lobbyists told the committee the technology isn’t currently being widely used in California and can’t be used to establish probable cause, meaning officers aren’t roaming the streets with facial recognition technology specifically looking for suspected criminals.
Cory Salzillo with the California State Sheriffs’ Association said potential beneficial uses of facial recognition could include combing through and redacting body camera footage and other investigative aspects such as identifying suspects.
“It does help tell a story,” Salzillo said. “Taking away that tool we think has consequences that don’t necessarily outweigh the perceived concerns.”
Aside from privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns, AB 1215 supporters like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the California Public Defenders Association say the technology often misidentifies minorities and opens them up to wrongful arrests.
“Face surveillance will exasperate historical biases born of unfair police practices in black and Latinx neighborhoods,” testified Nathan Sheard, EFF grassroots advocacy organizer, using the gender-neutral version of “Latino.”
But as camera technology continues to improve so will the accuracy of facial technology, responded Darryl Lucien of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. He urged Ting to hold off on a blanket law enforcement ban and consider amendments that will allow the technology to be improved.
“We’re open to talking with the author about it, we think there’s a way to reduce fears of a police state that is going to be in continuous real-time surveillance with facial recognition technology,” Lucien said.
The budding technology also faces scrutiny in Congress, as last week the House Oversight Committee conducted a two-day hearing on the results of a three-year audit of how the federal government is using facial recognition devices. The audit found the FBI already has 640 million photos in its database yet it hasn’t fully implemented the privacy and transparency fixes recommended by the Homeland Security Government Accountability Office.
Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to become the first city in the United States to bar law enforcement from using facial recognition. Similar bans have already been passed in Oregon and New Hampshire.
Rather than relying on Congress or the tech industry to create safeguards, Ting and the California Democrats are moving forward with AB 1215.
“You are putting hundreds to thousands of cameras with facial recognition software that’s not accurate on our streets instantly. Without any public deliberation, without any public process and without any understanding or agreement as to what they can and cannot be used for,” Ting concluded.
— By Nick Cahill