California Law Officially Bans Facial Recognition in Police Body Cams

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California will block police officers from including facial recognition technology in their body cameras, joining two other states that have created similar laws—Oregon and New Hampshire.

On Tuesday Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB1215 into law, barring law enforcement from using any “biometric surveillance system” in their body cameras, and enabling people to take legal action against officers who violate the law.

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As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, state legislators were encouraged to pass the bill following an ACLU demonstration in which Amazon’s Rekognition software misidentified 26 lawmakers, incorrectly deeming them criminal suspects.

“We wanted to run this as a demonstration about how this software is absolutely not ready for prime time,” said the bill’s creator assemblymember Phil Ting at a press conference following the test. “While we can laugh about it as legislators, it’s no laughing matter if you are an individual who is trying to get a job, if you are an individual trying to get a home, if you get falsely accused of an arrest, what happens, it could impact your ability to get employment, it absolutely impacts your ability to get housing.”

However, when the technology advances, and is ready for “prime time” it will only cause more ethical concerns.

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“When you’re talking about an AI tool on a body camera, then these are extra-human abilities,” Brian Brackeen, CEO of AI startup Kairos, told Gizmodo last year for a story about racial bias in face recognition technology. A month earlier Brackeen revealed Kairos has turned down a contract with Axon, manufacturer of body cameras.

“Let’s say an officer can identify 30 images an hour. If you were to ask a police department if they were willing to limit [recognition] to 30 recognitions an hour they would say no,” Brackeen told Gizmodo. “Because it’s not really about the time of the officer. It’s really about a superhuman ability to identify people, which changes the social contract.”

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According to the Chronicle, the California Peace Officers’ Association claims that no California law enforcement agencies currently use facial recognition technology in body cameras. But the newspaper reports that some agencies have considered adopting the technology.

The original bill would have created a permanent ban, but Ting compromised due to protests from the Peace Officers’ Association and other police advocacy groups. For now, the law expires in 2023.

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo