California Temporarily Bans Face Recognition Tech on Police Body Cams

Photo: David McNew / Stringer (Getty)

California became the largest state to ban police from using body cameras with facial recognition software after lawmakers passed a three-year moratorium Thursday, Reuters reported. This landmark bill comes as legislators nationwide struggle to keep regulations apace with the fast-growing, and notoriously inaccurate, technology.

The bill, AB-1215, bars state and local law enforcement from using facial recognition technology on body camera footage, both in real-time and upon later review. Though there is one exception: If police release these videos to the public, they can use the software to blur faces for privacy reasons, per Reuters. An earlier draft proposed a seven-year ban but, according to Reuters, this was shortened to three years over “concerns that the technology might greatly improve.” The legislation secured the state Senate’s support earlier this week and will go into effect in 2020 pending approval from Governor Gavin Newsom.

Critics of this technology argue it stands to seriously threaten Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties if used by police in its current state, particularly among people of color since it’s demonstrably less accurate with darker skin tones. At this point, facial recognition software often can’t even tell the difference between legislators and suspected criminals.

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U.S. law enforcement agencies have also already proven that a new gadget isn’t going to buck their track record of systemic abuse. Several departments have already been caught using facial recognition technology in highly questionable and occasionally outright dumb ways, such as using edited photos, forensic sketches, or celebrity lookalikes to search for suspects.

All this is precisely why many digital rights organizations, including the 15-million member strong coalition Fight for the Future, joined together earlier this month to petition a nationwide ban, calling the technology “unreliable, biased, and a threat to basic rights and safety.”

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California’s new bill follows similar legislation in Oregon and New Hampshire. Several cities, including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, as well as the largest manufacturer of police body cameras, Axon, have also followed suit. And Europe may not be too far behind.

While it’s too early to tell whether the question of regulating facial recognition technology will reach the federal level any time soon, California’s decision will no doubt earn the issue some serious credence. Hopefully enough to land it on the agenda of national legislators.

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[Reuters]

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Alyse Stanley

Nights and weekend reporter, Gizmodo.