Letter: Coalition Supports Davis’ Proposed Face Surveillance Prohibition Ordinance

Dear Chair Horton and Members of the PAC:

We are a coalition of civil rights organizations writing to express support for Chair Horton’s proposed face surveillance prohibition ordinance. This is a technology that poses a threat to people of color and facilitates biased government surveillance of our communities. The use of this technology by government agencies poses a unique threat to public safety and the well-being of people in Davis, regardless of the system’s accuracy. Davis should refuse to allow government agencies to acquire or use it for at least three reasons: first, due to flaws in face surveillance systems; second, because such systems are frequently built upon biased datasets; and finally, because face surveillance would supercharge invasive and discriminatory government surveillance.

The biased algorithms and processes that power face surveillance technology pose a threat to people of color. Multiple tests of this technology indicate it is less accurate for darker-skinned people. Peer-reviewed academic research by researchers at MIT has demonstrated that prominent facial recognition technology products perform more poorly for people with darker skin and women.1 In 2018, a test of Amazon’s Rekognition facial surveillance product by the ACLU of Northern California falsely matched 28 members of Congress with arrest booking photos.2 Of those false matches, 39 percent were people of color, even though people of color only constitute 19 percent of Congress. In practice, an erroneous face surveillance system could misinform and influence a decision about how to approach a person, including the decision of whether to use force. These kind of flaw systems should not be used to make decisions about Davis residents’ lives.

The databases that underlie facial recognition systems are frequently biased as well. Facial recognition systems are commonly connected to databases of mugshot photos. These photos are then used as a reference point when the system searches for matches of individuals in the world. But because mugshot databases reflect historical over-policing of communities of color, facial recognition “matching” databases are disproportionately made up of people of color arrested in our communities. If such systems are connected to officer body cameras or surveillance cameras, these communities may be unfairly targeted simply because they appeared in another database.

Finally, face surveillance gives the government unprecedented reach into our lives and will fuel discriminatory government surveillance. People should be free to go about their daily lives without the government knowing whether they visit a bar or an abortion clinic, march at a political rally, or attend a religious service. Yet with the flip of a switch, Davis could add face surveillance to public CCTV cameras, sensor-equipped smart streetlights, or even officer-worn body cameras, creating a citywide surveillance network that could track and recognize residents as they move across town. Face surveillance technology makes it easy for the government to learn these and other details of private lives, all with little to no human effort. And like the surveillance systems that came before, the harms will fall hardest on people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants.

If Davis builds a face surveillance database, it might also invite requests from other governmental entities such as ICE, in effect entangling local agencies in the federal government’s deportation machine. At a time when public protest is at an all-time high and the federal government is attacking immigrants and activists, Davis should refuse to build face surveillance systems that could easily be misused for dangerous, authoritarian surveillance.

Face surveillance will not make the Davis community safer and could lead to grave harm. It would subject residents and visitors to continuous monitoring and potentially violent contacts with law enforcement if it produces erroneous results. Regardless of accuracy, systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias that harms immigrants, religious minorities, activists, and people of color. An identification—whether accurate or not— could cost people their freedom or even lives. Davis should refuse to go down this road.

According to Fight for The Future, twenty-five (25) jurisdictions across the country have banned the use of face surveillance technology, including five (5) in California.3

Facial Recognition Technology is anti-democracy and anti-privacy

We have both a human right, and in California, a state right to privacy. The United States Supreme Court has consistently ruled for decades that we have the right to be anonymous in public. As a people, we have never consented to law enforcement tracking and tagging us like cattle, without at least a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. We have never been forced to, nor agreed to, carry a visible ID around with us as we move about our lives. We have consistently said we do not need to identify ourselves walking around, yet with this technology, it is the equivalent of forcing us to identify ourselves to others simply by participating in modern day life and walking outside our front door.

No young person exploring their sexuality will be comfortable exploring a gay bar for the first time. Muslims will be reluctant to attend their mosques. Inter-racial and same sex relationships, individuals seeking reproductive or gender affirming care in this post-Dobbs world, these actions first occurred in the “underground”, requiring privacy, before they became accepted as normal and/or eventually decriminalized. In a world of perfect surveillance, these types of social changes will no longer be possible, because the status quo will become cemented.

Privacy is the underpinning of liberty. Those liberties will disappear if we let this genie out of the bottle. A March 2019 David Binder Research poll conducted for the ACLU revealed that over 82% of likely Statewide voters, and 79% of likely Bay Area voters, oppose the government using biometric information to monitor and track who we are, and where we go.

There are already thousands of public and private cameras in place, just waiting for facial recognition technology to be coupled with them. We don’t have to accept as inevitable that technology will creep further into our lives. The health of our democracy depends on our ability to occasionally say no – that this technology, more so than others, is too radical for use in our community.

Face Surveillance Has Already Led to Proven False Arrests

To date, all but one of the victims of proven false arrests due to the use of face surveillance technology have been Black individuals.5 Misidentification is not the only concern.

“In September, the Government Accountability Office warned that federal law enforcement agencies have run thousands of AI-powered facial recognition searches without having appropriate training requirements in place for the officials running the searches, highlighting the potential for misuse.

The Federal Trade Commission has increasingly put companies on notice that the rising use of facial recognition and artificial intelligence has created “new threats to privacy and civil rights. The use of face- or iris-scanning technologies to identify consumers in places such as stores, airports or sports arenas could lead to increases in identity theft and impersonation, the FTC warned in a 2023 statement. It could also “reveal sensitive personal information about them — for example, that they have accessed particular types of healthcare, attended religious services, or attended political or union meetings.”

By saying no to use of this technology, Davis will join the many other municipalities that are sending a strong message to the market to stop developing these technologies.


American Civil Liberties Union – Northern California Anti Police-Terror Project

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus California Immigrant Policy Center

Electronic Frontier Foundation Fight For The Future

Immigrant Legal Resource Center NorCal Resist

Secure Justice




About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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