New law bans Calif. cops from using facial recognition tech on body cameras

Activist groups, assemblymen praise the legislation's stance against "becoming a police state"


Bryan Anderson
Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California police departments won’t be allowed to use facial recognition software on body cameras for the next several years, under a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday.

The bill from Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, takes effect at the start of 2020 and expires after three years. Ting initially proposed a permanent ban on the technology.

California police departments can no longer use facial recognition software [on body cameras] amid concerns surrounding software inaccuracies. (Photo/MCT)
California police departments can no longer use facial recognition software [on body cameras] amid concerns surrounding software inaccuracies. (Photo/MCT)

It’s unclear whether a single law enforcement group in California uses facial recognition software in body cameras, but Ting has said he wanted to address a potential problem “before it became a major issue.”

“The public wanted their officers and deputies to use body cameras to provide accountability and transparency for the community. The addition of facial recognition technology essentially turns them into 24-hour surveillance tools, giving law enforcement the ability to track our every move. We cannot become a police state,” Ting said in a statement after Newsom signed the bill.

The new law is welcome news for privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union — a group that also worries about minorities being misidentified if the technology is deployed.

“Rather than facilitating the expansion of a discriminatory surveillance state, California must invest its precious resources to foster free, healthy communities where everyone can feel safe – regardless of what they look like, where they’re from, how they worship, or where they live,” said a statement from Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

A test of facial recognition software conducted by the ACLU this summer showed an Amazon program mistakenly identify 26 California lawmakers as criminals. A spokesman for Amazon criticized the study to news organizations at the time, accusing the organization of “knowingly misusing and misrepresenting” the recognition software.

Meanwhile, police groups fear Newsom’s decision will prevent them identifying potential suspects or missing persons.

Ron Lawrence, chief of police for Citrus Heights and president of California Police Chiefs Association, told The Sacramento Bee last month that officers work hard to protect privacy and wouldn’t use the technology to spy on the public.

Ting plans to consider extending the ban once the three-year moratorium expires.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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