California Lawmakers Consider Restricting Use of Facial Recognition by Police

The city of San Francisco first banned all use of facial recognition technology by police and any other department in May. Now, California lawmakers are considering restricting the use of the software by all police agencies in the state.

The facial recognition software uses machine learning algorithms which identify human faces caught by federal and state cameras and then match the faces to names, creating a database of images and identities.

Facial recognition may infringe on civil liberties, but has been useful in solving cold cases and identifying suspects. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Independent

The California legislature is now debating whether or not to prohibit police from using this software via officer body cameras. Berkeley and Oakland are considering following in their neighbor city’s suit: like San Francisco, the two cities are deciding whether or not to ban the use of facial recognition software among their local police forces.

Federally, the use of facial recognition has also attracted attention. Lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, are examining the use of facial recognition programs and whether or not to restrict it.

The measure that California lawmakers have put forth, Assembly Bill 1215, would prohibit the use of any “biometric surveillance system” by police and law enforcement agencies via body cameras. San Francisco Democrat Phil Ting, who acted as lead author of the measure, believes constant surveillance of citizens erodes trust in communities.

“Body cameras were deployed to build trust with communities, to build more transparency and more openness,” said Ting in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It really was not the intention of body cameras to have roving surveillance cameras on police.”

Those who are in favor of restricting the use of facial recognition software believe that creating enormous databases of identities could lead to privacy issues as well as free speech issues.

Some groups believe the measure will make policing more difficult and create problems for officers doing their jobs. The California Police Chiefs Association has formally opposed the bill and stated during an Assembly hearing that “prohibiting the use of biometric surveillance systems severely hinders law enforcement’s ability to identify and detain suspects of criminal activity.”

The database can also be used to solve cold cases, as the facial recognition software databases can be compared to old images of suspects from crimes not yet solved.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which would be affected should the bill pass, has said that they do use facial recognition programs to help spur investigations. Lieutenant Derek Sabatini, who heads up the county biometric identification system, said that comparing mug shots to photos collected by the facial recognition database has helped to solve crimes. However, he notes that constant surveillance is worth talking about.

“Surveillance needs discussion,” Sabatini said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We should talk about it and understand how it’s used — there’s a lot of trust issues with that, and it’s totally understandable.”