Victory! California Senate Votes Against Face Surveillance on Police Body Cams

By Haley Tsukayama

The California Senate listened to the many voices expressing concern about the use of face surveillance on cameras worn or carried by police officers, and has passed an important bill that will, for three years, prohibit police from turning a tool intended to foster police accountability into one that furthers mass surveillance.

A.B. 1215, authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting, prohibits the use of face recognition, or other forms of biometric technology, on a camera worn or carried by a police officer in California for three years.  The Assembly passed an earlier version of the bill with a 45-17 vote on May 9. Today’s vote of the Senate was 22-15. We are pleased that the Senate has listened to the growing number of voices who oppose the way government agencies use face surveillance.

The government’s use of face surveillance—particularly when used with body-worn cameras in real-time— has grave implications for privacy, free speech, and racial justice. For example, face recognition technology has disproportionately high error rates for women and people of color. Making matters worse, law enforcement agencies conducting face surveillance often rely on images pulled from mugshot databases, which include a disproportionate number of people of color due to racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.

As EFF activist Nathan Sheard told the California Assembly in May, using face recognition technology “in connection with police body cameras would force Californians to decide between actively avoiding interaction and cooperation with law enforcement, or having their images collected, analyzed, and stored as perpetual candidates for suspicion.” Stopping the use of face surveillance on police cameras for three years gives the state time to evaluate the effect that this technology has on our communities. We hope the California Legislature will follow-up with a permanent ban.

Thank you to everyone who contacted their legislators to support this bill. We also wish to thank the bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Ting, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and our many coalition partners for all of their hard work on this bill.

Lawmakers and community members across the country are advancing their own prohibitions and moratoriums on their local government’s use of face surveillance, including the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ historic May ban on government use of face recognition. We encourage communities across the country to enact similar measures in their own cities.

A.B. 1215 will now head back to the Assembly for a procedural vote on its latest amendments, before being sent to the governor’s desk. We urge Governor Newsom to sign this important bill into law.

Hayley Tsukayama is a legislative activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, focusing on state legislation. Prior to joining EFF, she spent nearly eight years as a consumer technology reporter at The Washington Post writing stories on the industry’s largest companies.

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