California could soon ban facial recognition technology on police body cameras

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), author of a bill restricting facial recognition tech on police body cameras
Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), right, wrote a bill barring police from installing facial recognition technology on body-worn cameras for three years.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Taking one of the toughest stands in the nation against police use of facial recognition technology, California lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation barring police from installing it on body-worn cameras for three years.

The legislation, which now awaits action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, was scaled back at Newsom’s request from an original proposal that called for an outright ban, said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who wrote the measure. Later, legislators further softened the bill from the governor’s proposal to prohibit police use of body cameras with facial recognition technology for seven years.

But Ting said the bill still marks a significant reining in of a technology that is rapidly evolving, little regulated and often questioned over accuracy and privacy considerations.

“This is not just a California concern; this is a national concern,” Ting said. “This really looks at how much liberty do we have, and how much liberty do we have when we are being watched every step.”


Many law enforcement groups remain opposed to the legislation, arguing that facial recognition has important uses in tracking suspects and other applications, such as finding lost children.

“Think about the Boston Marathon bombing, how much video coverage assisted the police in solving that crime,” said Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn. “Imagine how much more rapidly, how much more quickly we can solve crimes with that technology. It’s really the way of the future … and we need to embrace technology and not shun it away.”

Lawrence said he was pleased the measure would be in place for only three years, but he was disappointed “that people would believe law enforcement would use the technology for nefarious reasons. I think that there is some underlying current there that some groups believe law enforcement is using it to spy on the general public, and that is simply not true.”

Critics argue that facial recognition technology is not reliable enough to be used by law enforcement and that deployment on body cameras without community input and approval puts thousands of cameras on streets with little oversight. Some studies have shown that the technology is less reliable when identifying people of color and women, causing particular concern in communities of color.

Ting said he focused on body cameras because they present the additional challenge of an unstable camera that is in motion during recording and because they were meant to build community trust. He said that adding a surveillance component to the cameras could undermine community relations with police.

“It’s good to press pause on these technologies so we can have a debate,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, an advocacy organization that opposes the technology. “It can land an innocent person in prison. It can get someone deported.”

Debate over the legislation intensified last month when the American Civil Liberties Union, which backed the bill, released a test of facial recognition software that incorrectly matched 26 California legislators — about 1 in 5 of the state’s lawmakers — with mug shots in a publicly available database of police photos. Last year, in a similar experiment done with photos of members of Congress, the software erroneously matched 28 federal lawmakers with mug shots.

Amazon, the maker of the Rekognition software used by the ACLU, criticized the test as a publicity stunt and a faulty use of the software. At the time of the test, Amazon released a statement that read in part: “The ACLU is once again knowingly misusing and misrepresenting Amazon Rekognition to make headlines. As we’ve said many times in the past, when used with the recommended 99% confidence threshold and as one part of a human driven decision, facial recognition technology can be used for a long list of beneficial purposes.”

The company declined to comment after the passage of the legislation.

Another bill that would have forced retailers who use facial recognition technology to post a notice informing customers of its use stalled this week. Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Arcadia) said his proposal was held because a compromise could not be reached with retailers who opposed it. Chau said he intended to hold a hearing next year to more broadly examine commercial use of the technology.

The legislation approved Thursday, Assembly Bill 1215, applies only to body-worn cameras and does not prohibit law enforcement from using facial recognition on stationary cameras or in other applications. No California law enforcement agency has reported using the software on body cameras, but Ting said he wanted to address the issue before it became widespread.

“I think this legislation has really served its purpose to bring this issue out,” Ting said.