ACLU backs Calif. legislation to curb facial recognition tech with body cams

Just days after San Francisco became the first city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and government agencies, a coalition led by the ACLU of California is backing a bill that would “prevent the use of face surveillance and other biometric surveillance technology with police body cameras and similar devices” in the state.

The ACLU also issued an open letter to Amazon shareholders urging them to vote against the sale of the company’s face surveillance offering, Rekognition, to the government and to require an independent review of the human and civil rights impact of the technology.

Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, contended on a call with reporters Friday that “we may have put the cart before the horse” and “pushed technology out” before having debated it.

The legislation, AB-1215 Law enforcement: facial recognition and other biometric surveillance, would place a premium on privacy, noting that “facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology pose unique and significant threats to the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors.” Its use would be the “functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights” and “allows people to be tracked without consent.”

Biometric surveillance would also result in the creation of “massive databases about law-abiding Californians.” Privacy and civil rights advocates have long been concerned about the technology’s invasiveness as well as its disproportionate use against and impact on people of color. It has, the proposed legislation said, “been repeatedly demonstrated to misidentify women, young people, and people of color and to create an elevated risk of harmful ‘false positive’ identifications.

The ACLU’s actions come as it prepares to address Amazon’s annual shareholders’ meeting on May 22, exactly one year after the rights organization revealed emails that showed Amazon was pushing Rekognition technology to law enforcement and aiding them in its implementation. The group’s appearance at the meeting comes at the invitation of two shareholders, the ACLU said.

San Francisco’s near unanimous vote to ban facial recognition technology highlights the rising alarm over civil rights and privacy intrusions and, according to ACLU Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney Matt Cagle, likely will help pave the way for lawmakers in other jurisdictions – as well as on the federal stage – to curb or ban its use by law enforcement and government agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Congress will take up facial recognition this week at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing Wednesday.

Noting the “uniquely bipartisan recognition of the very significant threat this technology poses,” Guliani said Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has been a particularly vocal critic of Amazon’s efforts to sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement and realizes how it could be misused against people of color.

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