The spread of face surveillance, and all of its privacy and civil rights threats, might seem unstoppable. In fact, it is not inevitable. Communities from California to Massachusetts have already taken action to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors.
In May of 2019, San Francisco became the first city to take the important step of anticipating, and addressing, the grave impact law enforcement’s use of the technology would have on our privacy—by banning government use of the technology. Less than two months later, the East Coast city of Somerville, Massachusetts, joined San Francisco in protecting its residents from this threat. Somerville’s face surveillance ban received unanimous support from its City Council. These two cities are very different in size and geography, but they had one important thing in common. Their residents stood up and made it clear that they would not trade away their public safety, privacy, and ability to express themselves for a technology short on results, big on promises, and even bigger on proven harms.
The inaccuracy inherent in police face surveillance causes real-world harms.
Face recognition systems provide a means for identifying or verifying the identity of an individual using their face. These systems can be used to identify people in photos, videos, or in real-time. However, face recognition software is notoriously bad at recognizing women, young people, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities, often misidentifying them.
This disparity threatens to exacerbate well-documented racially-biased police practices. Law enforcement databases—including mugshot databases—unjustifiably include a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. An inaccurate system will implicate people for crimes they did not commit, shifting the burden onto innocent people to show they are not who the system mistakenly says they are.
Face recognition uniquely impacts civil liberties.
In his majority opinion in the watershed Carpenter v. United States (2018), Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing in the public sphere.” Yet, government use of face surveillance threatens to do just that.
This dangerous technology threatens not only Fourth Amendment freedoms of privacy, but also First Amendment freedoms of speech and association. Recently, millions of students took part in a global climate strike calling for environmental justice. Before the recent era of powerful face surveillance technology, there was very little likelihood that the government would identify a protester, and be able to use knowledge of their First Amendment activity to deprive them of future access to employment, housing, or education. With widespread deployment of face surveillance technology, that is no longer the case. In fact, face surveillance has already been used to target people engaged in First Amendment-protected activity.
The threat to essential liberties extends far beyond political rallies. Images captured outside houses of worship, medical facilities, schools, community centers, or homes could reveal familial, political, religious and sexual partnerships. This threat is heightened by the disturbing record of law enforcement agencies’ failure to securely maintain sensitive personal information they collect about innocent people. And unlike a social security number or driver’s license number, we can’t change our faces.
It's time to correct the course.
That’s why we’re asking you to join us, by signing onto our statement of support for a ban on government use of face surveillance in your community. Together, we can show our local elected leaders that we are not willing to surrender our essential freedom to simply exist in public spaces without being subjected to pervasive surveillance.
Your elected representatives want to hear from you, their constituents and neighbors. That’s why we’re working with our Electronic Frontier Alliance partners, and community groups across the United States, to make sure your voice is heard.
Working with local allies, statements of support gathered here will be delivered to your local lawmakers—making it clear that your privacy, and the privacy of your neighbors, must be protected from this menacing surveillance system. It’s time they introduce and pass local legislation to ban the use of face surveillance by government agencies. In fact, we’ve taken the first step for them with this model legislation to effectively protect their constituents’ from privacy-invasive face surveillance.