Communities and lawmakers across the country are waking up to the fact that using face recognition for government surveillance is a troubling trend, particularly when used with cameras that police officers wear. On Thursday, Axon—a major police body-worn camera maker—added its voice to calls to press the pause button on this type of face surveillance, saying it will no longer be “commercializing face matching products on our body cameras at this time.”
Axon’s decision follows strong opposition to government use of face surveillance. San Francisco in May banned city use of face surveillance. This month, Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts have both taken crucial steps toward adopting similar bans, with both measures now headed for full city council votes.
California Assemblymember Phil Ting has also introduced A.B. 1215, the Body Camera Accountability Act, which would prohibit the application of all biometric technology on cameras worn or carried by police officers.
California: No Face Recognition on Body-Worn Cameras
Axon made its decision based on the recommendation of its independent ethics board. (EFF Tech Projects Director Jeremy Gillula sits on the Axon Ethics Board, in his personal capacity.)
As EFF and others have noted, the interaction between face surveillance and police cameras have grave implications for privacy, free speech, and racial justice.
In its own statement, Axon highlighted the need for lawmakers to think carefully about the issues raised by using face surveillance on police cameras.
Technology is moving much faster than legislative bodies and courts can respond. Hence, we believe it is critical for technology leaders to work hard to understand the ethical, legal, and community implications for new technologies that are too new to be effectively covered by existing law.
The ethics board report, published by New York University’s Policing Project, has also recommended that jurisdictions should not adopt face recognition technology without “going through open, transparent, democratic processes” that allow for public analysis, input and objection. “Further, development of face recognition products should be premised on evidence-based benefits,” the report said.
This is exactly the sort of review and auditing process for surveillance technologies, known as CCOPS or SERO, that EFF and others have supported across the country.
It should be noted that Axon has left open the possibility that it may include face recognition in the future, which is why we need federal and state laws—such as A.B. 1215—that would ban the use of biometric technology on body cameras altogether. As New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel wrote about Axon’s announcement, “true progress will have to come from regulation at the city, state or federal level.”
We agree. Californians, please urge your lawmakers to pass A.B. 1215. Communities across the country can urge their lawmakers to ensure that police body-worn cameras, intended to act as a tool to improve police accountability, do not morph into a mass biometric surveillance network.