Alarm Sounded on Face Surveillance-Enabled Body Cameras in California

Diverse coalition announces support for AB 1215: The Body Camera Accountability Act

(From Press Release)–Today, the ACLU of California and a diverse coalition of civil rights, racial justice, and digital privacy organizations sent a joint letter urging the California Senate Public Safety Committee to support AB 1215: The Body Camera Accountability Act. AB 1215, introduced by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), prevents California law enforcement from adding this surveillance technology to officer-worn body cameras for use against the public in California. The Senate Public Safety Committee is scheduled to vote on AB 1215 on Tuesday, June 11th.

“Body cameras were promised to the public as tools for police accountability, not surveillance,” said Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “The widespread use of face surveillance in public spaces is the equivalent of requiring every person to carry and display a photo ID card at all times, which would be an unacceptable mass violation of privacy.”

The Body Camera Accountability Act prevents law enforcement from adding face-scanning technology to body-worn cameras. Facial recognition technology suffers from serious accuracy and bias issues, according to multiple studies, and has been repeatedly demonstrated to misidentify women, young people, and people of color. Last year, the ACLU ran photos of members of Congress through Amazon’s “Rekognition” face surveillance product, and found that 28 members of Congress incorrectly “hit” with mugshot booking photos of arrestees – including former California legislators Mark DeSaulnier, Steve Knight, Jimmy Gomez, and Norma Torres. A disproportionate number of these false matches were lawmakers of color. The bill recognizes that even completely accurate facial recognition would subject the public to unprecedented tracking and further undermine the purpose of body cameras: to monitor officer conduct, not to track the identity and movements of Californians.

“For far too long, police technologies have made their way into our communities with no oversight or protections,” said Cagle. “This has led to an unprecedented level of surveillance that has disproportionately affected people of color and other communities living at the margins. This legislation rightly concludes that keeping our communities safe doesn’t have to come at the expense of our fundamental freedoms.”

Californians strongly support the policies in AB 1215, according to a poll of likely 2020 California voters. 82% of Californians believe the government shouldn’t be able to monitor and track who we are and where we go using our biometric information. 63% oppose adding biometric surveillance to public video cameras to identify and track the public. 62% believe that body cameras should be a tool for public oversight and accountability of police, not for surveillance of the public.

Legislators in California and across the country are acting to protect people from government face surveillance. Oregon and New Hampshire already prohibit the use of face recognition with body cameras. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has voted to prevent the use of face recognition technology by city departments. Oakland and Berkeley are considering similar legislation. Legislators in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington have all introduced legislation putting some form of a halt on the government’s use of these systems.

If approved by the Senate Public Safety Committee, AB 1215 would then head to the Senate Floor for approval.

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