Police Facial Recognition Ban Clears California Senate

Under the proposed law, police would be barred from equipping their body cameras with facial recognition software for a period of three years. Questions about the accuracy of the technology and privacy are central issues.

by / September 12, 2019
Shutterstock/Brandon Bourdages

A California bill that would ban the use of facial recognition software in police body cameras passed the state senate this week.

While it still needs a vote from the Assembly and a signature from the governor to become law, the bill is the latest sign that California legislators are looking to support measures that would strengthen privacy protections for residents. 

The Body Camera Accountability Act, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, would prohibit police from "installing, activating, or using any biometric surveillance system in connection with an officer camera."

Its drafting was spurred by privacy concerns, as well as by concerns that the technology has a penchant for bias — with multiple studies showing it is more inaccurate when it comes to identifying minorities and women

The bill version that passed the Senate this week saw a notable change, with a shift of the sunset date from seven to three years. 

"Some of the [concerns] various senators had [with the original sunset date] was insuring that the technology [face recording] has a time to get better, and that if it did get better they would like to revisit the issue sooner, given how quickly technology changes and is developed," Ting said this week during a press event.

Also catalyzing the decision was resistance from law enforcement groups, Ting admitted. "I'm sure that played a part in it," he said. "We were unable to remove opposition from law enforcement." Police groups like the California Police Chiefs Association and the Peace Officers' Association have repeatedly denounced the bill throughout the legislative process on the basis that it will hinder effective policing and that people do not have a legal expectation of privacy in public spaces.  

This week's vote saw senators fairly split, with 22 voting in favor and 15 dissenting. Comments made on the Senate floor before the vote showed lawmakers were fairly divided over whether an outright moratorium on the technology was appropriate.  

Opposing the bill, Sen. Bob Archuleta, D-Pico Rivera, argued that the state should continue to study the technology and focus on properly regulating it — rather than flatly outlawing it. "The technology is something that we're still working on," he said. "I think it should be researched and brought up to standards." 

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, who also opposed the legislation, said that biometrics had a real potential to aid law enforcement — a fact that shouldn't be overlooked. 

"Nobody wants somebody's constitutional rights to be trampled on," Glazer said. "But the issue here is whether state government artificially puts a stop to the potential for that technology to help us catch bad people ... I think this bill is premature."    

One of the bill's supporters, Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, argued that the technology's penchant for bias and inaccuracy made a temporary moratorium a sensible precautionary step. 

"I think the danger of not taking the action that's before us is that a technology that is still flawed could then be used in a way that is very harmful, and I think none of us want that. We do want our law enforcement to do their jobs, absolutely ... but the technology in its current form is ... making a lot of mistakes," Skinner said. 

Lucas Ropek Staff Writer

Lucas Ropek is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and writer in Massachusetts and New York. He received his Bachelor's degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio. He lives in Northern California.

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