Berkeley has become the third city in California and the fourth city in the United States to ban the use of face recognition technology by the government. After an outpouring of support from the community, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance introduced by Councilmember Kate Harrison earlier this year.
Berkeley joins other Bay Area cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, which also banned government use of face recognition. In July 2019, Somerville, Massachusetts became the first city on the East Coast to ban the government’s use of face recognition.
The passage of the ordinance also follows the signing of A.B. 1215, a California state law that places a three-year moratorium on police use of face recognition on body-worn cameras, beginning on January 1, 2020. As EFF’s Associate Director of Community Organizing Nathan Sheard told the California Assembly, using face recognition technology “in connection with police body cameras would force Californians to decide between actively avoiding interaction and cooperation with law enforcement, or having their images collected, analyzed, and stored as perpetual candidates for suspicion.”
Over the last several years, EFF has continually voiced concerns over the First and Fourth Amendment implications of government use of face surveillance. These concerns are exacerbated by research conducted by MIT’s Media Lab regarding the technology’s high error rates for women and people of color. However, even if manufacturers are successful in addressing the technology’s substantially higher error rates for already marginalized communities, government use of face recognition technology will still threaten safety and privacy, chill free speech, and amplify historical and ongoing discrimination in our criminal justice system.
Berkeley’s ban on face recognition is an important step toward curtailing the government’s use of biometric surveillance. Congratulations to the community that stood up in opposition to this invasive and flawed technology and to the city council members who listened.