By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Police body cameras – increasingly deployed the past few years in the wake of police shootings and designed to monitor law enforcement misconduct in the streets – could be used, instead, as a surveillance tool to invade of the privacy of people walking down the street or attending free speech events.
Not only is it a potential invasion of privacy, but the technology could lead to tragic results, warned lawmakers at a Tuesday Capitol press conference about legislation to ban the use of facial-recognition technology on police body cameras.
To prove the technology is not perfected, the lawmakers presented evidence that shows that the software falsely identified 26 members of the Legislature – about one in five – as criminals on a mugshot database.
More than half of those misidentified were lawmakers of color – the software misclassifies women and people of color more than other segments of society, said Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who introduced AB 1215, the so-called “The Body Camera Accountability Act.”
The measure has passed the Assembly and is up for a Senate floor vote soon.
Amazon’s system was used for the test that “criminalized” the 26 lawmakers, including Ting. Their photos were compared with 25,0900 public arrest photos. The test was verified by an independent expert from UC Berkeley.
Other members of the Assembly flagged as “criminals” included Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Adam Gray, David Chiu, Ed Chau, Eduardo Garcia, Frank Bigelow, Freddie Rodriguez, James Ramos, Jim Cooper, Mark Stone, Miguel Santiago, Sydney Kamlager-Dove and Tyler Diep.
In a similar test, 28 members of Congress were falsely ID’d as criminals.
“This software is not ready for prime time. It falsely accuses real people, and can have real impact on their lives,” said Ting, who said that body cams were designed to “build trust” in police in communities, not spy on them.
“We’ve had this debate in this country for a long time. Freedom versus safety. This is a clear case of maintaining freedom,” added Ting, noting that, so far, no city in California uses the technology. And, he wants it to stay that way.
But that’s why California needs to be “proactive,” explained Ting. Software companies, including Microsoft, have, for now, refused to sell the tech for body cameras, he said.
“I’ve heard of many cases of mistaken identity leading to arrests, and death. The fear is real someone will be wrongly suspected of being a terrorist,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-South LA).
Jones-Sawyer was misidentified as a criminal on the test of the facial recognition software – he said it didn’t make him feel very comfortable.
The lawmaker cited his own experience with mistaken identity when he once pulled into his yard and was thought to be driving a stolen car. Luckily, he said, the officer – who should have arrested him – double-checked his ID and let him go.
The technology would be a “massive public safety hazard” for communities of color, said Matt Cagle, the ACLU Technology and civil liberties attorney.
“Even if this technology was accurate, which it is not, face recognition-enabled body cameras would facilitate massive violation of Californians’ civil rights,” he said.
The ACLU maintains, as Ting said, that body cameras should be used to identify police misconduct, not residents’ faces.
“A real-world misidentification by a face recognition-enabled officer body camera could misinform an officer” and lead result in the use of excessive force, or worse, said the ACLU.
Civil libertarians oppose the use of the technology because, as the ACLU said, “people should be able to walk down the street, attend a protest and go about their private lives without being face-scanned, tracked or logged in a government database.”