Victory: San Diego to Suspend Face Recognition Program, Limits ICE Access To Criminal Justice Data

By Dave Maass

We just stopped one of the largest, longest running, and most controversial face recognition programs operated by local law enforcement in the United States.

A face recognition system used by more than 30 agencies in San Diego County, California will be suspended on Jan. 1, 2020, according to a new agenda published by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which manages the program.

In October, EFF sent a letter to SANDAG demanding it suspend the program to comply with a new law that takes effect at the beginning of the year. Authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting, A.B.1215 creates a three-year moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition connected with cameras carried by police officers. These cameras include body-worn cameras and handheld devices. EFF organizer Nathan Sheard testified in favor of the bill back in June, noting that “face surveillance will exacerbate historical biases born of and contributing to unfair police practices in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.” EFF participated in a sustained campaign to send it to the governor’s desk alongside the ACLU of California, Oakland Privacy, and a broad coalition of civil society and grassroots groups.

Launched in 2012, San Diego’s program—the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS)—provided 1,309 specialized face-recognition tablets and phones to dozens of local, state, and federal agencies. Between 2016 and 2018, officers had conducted more than 65,500 scans with the devices.

“To ensure compliance with AB 1215, operation of the TACIDS program will be suspended beginning January 1, 2020,” writes Pam Scanlon, head of SANDAG’s Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) in the agenda memo. “ARJIS will notify all law enforcement partners that TACIDS access will be suspended, which will include removal of the TACIDS Booking Photo interface and all user access to TACIDS systems.”

The agenda also indicates SANDAG will not renew the contract with the face recognition vendor, FaceFirst, when it expires in March 2020.

In the same agenda, SANDAG also reveals that in October it disabled all ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations accounts across the agency’s law enforcement databases and computer systems to comply with guidance from the California Department of Justice (CADOJ) on S.B. 54, the California Values Act. This law is designed to limit how local law enforcement may collaborate with immigration enforcement activities. EFF and immigrant rights groups successfully lobbied CADOJ to restrict ICE access to law enforcement databases, and EFF specifically called on SANDAG to address this issue after data revealed ICE was using the face recognition devices.

The end of San Diego’s program marks a major victory in the nationwide battle against face surveillance. But it doesn’t stop here. Join our campaign to end face surveillance on the local level across the country.


For more information on San Diego’s face recognition program, read our October 2019 report and letter.

As EFF’s senior investigative researcher, Dave Maass is a muckraker/noisemaker, covering issues related to police surveillance, free speech, transparency, and government accountability. In addition to leading deep-dive investigations, Dave coordinates large-scale public records campaigns, advocates on state legislation, and compiles The Foilies, EFF’s annual tongue-in-cheek awards for outrageous responses to FOIA requests. He sometimes represents EFF in digital rights-themed cosplay at Dragon Con, and he edited EFF’s first science fiction collection, Pwning Tomorrow.  He also researches virtual reality as part of the team that developed Spot the Surveillance, EFF’s first VR experience. Contact him with questions or information on police technology (e.g. automated license plate readers, biometric identification), prisoner rights, or public records laws.

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