Berkeley, California became the fourth U.S. city to pass a ban on all government use of facial recognition technology on Tuesday night following a unanimous yes vote by the City Council.
Two other cities in the state, Oakland and San Francisco, have already passed their own bans on government use of facial recognition tech, while Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill banning its use on police body cams for several years. Somerville, Massachusetts, also passed a similar law this summer.
In a letter proposing the change to the city’s municipal code recorded in the meeting’s agenda, Berkeley councilmembers Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila wrote that the potential use of face recognition to track persons en masse would be an egregious violation of the Fourth Amendment. They also wrote that the technology differs from stationary surveillance cameras by “[eliminating] the human and judicial element behind the existing warrant system,” in which government officials have to demonstrate that surveillance is both constitutional and sufficiently narrow to protect the rights of those targeted.
“Due to the inherent dragnet nature of facial recognition technology, governments cannot reasonably support by oath or affirmation the particular persons or things to be seized,” the councilmembers wrote. “The programmatic automation of surveillance fundamentally undermines the community’s liberty.” They also pointed to a recent editorial by Secure Justice executive director Brian Hofer and ACLU attorney Matt Cagle that it took San Francisco decades to compile intelligence files on over 100,000 people by 1973, whereas face recognition could enable them to “stockpile information on 100,000 residents in a few hours.”
The dystopian potential of facial recognition technology has already been demonstrated in China, where the government has employed the method as it swept an estimated million members of the Uighur minority into concentration camps and recently implemented rules mandating face scans for those signing up for internet or getting a new phone number. Meanwhile, research has shown the technology is also indiscriminate: 28 members of Congress were misidentified as criminals in one test, while Amazon’s Rekognition software has reportedly shown serious racial and gender bias. (Despite pitching it to cops and federal immigration authorities, Amazon has shown a disturbing lack of concern for how Rekognition could be abused by customers beyond some handwavey references to its terms of service.)
“The epidemic spread of facial recognition is a human rights crisis,” Evan Greer, deputy director of pro-privacy and anti-censorship group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “But we still have a chance to draw a line in the sand. The local advocates and lawmakers in Berkeley who passed this ban are showing us the way. Our surveillance nightmares are not inevitable. We’re fighting to ban government use of facial recognition everywhere.”