Capitol Alert

California passes bill that stops cops from using facial recognition software in bodycams

California police officers may soon be temporarily barred from using facial recognition software in body cameras, under a bill now heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The proposal from Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, originally called for a permanent ban on the use of the technology. But at the urging of Newsom’s office, Ting said he limited the ban to seven years. With heavy opposition from law enforcement groups, that moratorium has since shrunk to three years.

Even so, it could carry major consequences. Police agencies worry the ban would make it harder for them to find missing people and identify suspects, while the American Civil Liberties Union see the measure as a way to protect people’s privacy, particularly minorities who are more likely to be misidentified.

“It’s a tool to building trust and increase transparency,” Ting said of body cameras. “If you install software onto those body cameras, then you run the risk of destroying that trust at the same time it becomes a tool of surveillance, which was never the goal of these body cameras.”

During a test of facial recognition technology developed by Amazon and conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Ting was among 26 state lawmakers in California mistakenly identified as a criminal when his portraits was compared to a mugshot database.

A spokesman for Amazon criticized the ACLU study to news organizations, accusing the organization of “knowingly misusing and misrepresenting” the recognition software.

While the technology is in an early stage and Ting couldn’t identify a single law enforcement group in California using it on body cameras, he said his bill aimed to address a problem “before it became a major issue.”

Ron Lawrence, chief of police for Citrus Heights and president of California Police Chiefs Association, said he’s pleased with the amendments limiting the facial recognition prohibition to three years but remains upset that a helpful resource may soon be taken away if Newsom signs the bill.

“It’s not like we’d rely exclusively on facial recognition to solve a crime,” Lawrence said. “It’d just be one tool. This piece of technology would be to help us identify suspects or missing persons. It’s not a tool to spy on the public. I understand their concern, but I think it’s misguided. We work hard to protect people’s privacy.”

Newsom has until Oct. 13 to sign the bill. If he does, it would go into effect at the start of 2020. Assembly Bill 1215 would then be repealed beginning in 2023.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.