EFF has joined a coalition of civil rights and civil liberties organizations to support a California bill that would prohibit law enforcement from applying face recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies to footage collected by body-worn cameras.
About five years ago, body cameras began to flood into police and sheriff departments across the country. In California alone, the Bureau of Justice Assistance provided more than $7.4 million in grants for these cameras to 31 agencies. The technology was pitched to the public as a means to ensure police accountability and document police misconduct. However, if enough cops have cameras, a police force can become a roving surveillance network, and the thousands of hours of footage they log can be algorithmically analyzed, converted into metadata, and stored in searchable databases.
Today, we stand at a crossroads as face recognition technology can now be interfaced with body-worn cameras in real time. Recognizing the impending threat to our fundamental rights, California Assemblymember Phil Ting introduced A.B. 1215 to prohibit the use of face recognition, or other forms of biometric technology, such as gait recognition or tattoo recognition, on a camera worn or carried by a police officer.
“The use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights,” the lawmaker writes in the introduction to the bill. “This technology also allows people to be tracked without consent. It would also generate massive databases about law-abiding Californians, and may chill the exercise of free speech in public places.”
Ting’s bill has the wind in its sails. The Assembly passed the bill with a 45-17 vote on May 9, and only a few days later the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made history by banning government use of face recognition. Meanwhile, law enforcement face recognition has come under heavy criticism at the federal level by the House Oversight Committee and the Government Accountability Office.
The bill is now before the California Senate, where it will be heard by the Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, June 11.
EFF, along with a coalition of civil liberties organizations including the ACLU, Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, CAIR California, Data for Black Lives, and a number of our Electronic Frontier Alliance allies have joined forces in supporting this critical legislation.
Face recognition technology has disproportionately high error rates for women and people of color. Making matters worse, law enforcement agencies conducting face surveillance often rely on images pulled from mugshot databases, which include a disproportionate number of people of color due to racial discrimination in our criminal justice system. So face surveillance will exacerbate historical biases born of, and contributing to, unfair policing practices in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
Polling commissioned by the ACLU of Northern California in March of this year shows the people of California, across party lines, support these important limitations. The ACLU's polling found that 62% of respondents agreed that body cameras should be used solely to record how police treat people, and as a tool for public oversight and accountability, rather than to give law enforcement a means to identify and track people. In the same poll, 82% of respondents said they disagree with the government being able to monitor and track a person using their biometric information.
Last month, Reuters reported that Microsoft rejected an unidentified California law enforcement agency’s request to apply face recognition to body cameras due to human rights concerns.
“Anytime they pulled anyone over, they wanted to run a face scan,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said. “We said this technology is not your answer.”
We agree that ubiquitous face surveillance is a mistake, but we shouldn’t have to rely on the ethical standards of tech giants to address this problem. Lawmakers in Sacramento must use this opportunity to prevent the threat of mass biometric surveillance from becoming the new normal. We urge the California Senate to pass A.B. 1215.