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California bill on police use of facial recognition passes second reading

Law would prohibit using 1:n face match as sole basis for arrest; critics want wider ban
California bill on police use of facial recognition passes second reading

California’s Senate Public Safety Committee has unanimously voted to advance Assembly Bill 1814, which would prevent police using facial recognition matches as the sole basis for an arrest. But critics believe the bill still gives law enforcement too much leeway – and they include several men who have been wrongly arrested as a result of facial recognition.

California has dabbled in facial recognition restrictions before. “Previous law, until January 1, 2023, prohibited the use of real-time facial recognition technology (FRT) by law enforcement agencies in connection with body-worn cameras,” reads AB 1814’S introductory text. The new bill, which would replace the expired one, “would prohibit a law enforcement agency or peace officer from using an FRT-generated match as the sole basis for probable cause in an arrest, search, or warrant.”

Crucially, facial recognition can still be used, but must be backed up with corroborating evidence before taking formal action.

Falsely identified Black men say FRT “poisons” investigations

Three Black men who suffered wrongful arrest as a result of false FRT matches say the law as proposed is not strong enough to prevent what happened to them from happening again. One of them, Robert Williams, was arrested at his Detroit home in front of his wife and children after being mistakenly identified in a facial recognition 1:n search. In comments to CalMatters, Williams says the police “did exactly what AB 1814 would require them to do, but it didn’t help.”

“Once the facial recognition software told them I was the suspect, it poisoned the investigation,” he says. “This technology is racially biased and unreliable and should be prohibited.”

Another black man who was wrongfully arrested after a false facial biometric match, Njeer Parks, recently posted a video to Instagram in which he says more or less the same thing. The proposed law, he says, will not address bias that takes hold as soon as facial recognition pings a positive match. Police, he says, “are not going to do their job if the AI is saying ‘It’s him’ already.”

San Francisco Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting, who introduced the bill, essentially argues that it is better than the current situation, in which the police effectively have regulatory carte blanche to deploy facial recognition tools.

“Law enforcement agencies in the state do not need any permission from anyone to do anything on facial recognition right now,” Ting says. “Nothing in any state law provides guidance in that particular area. This actually takes a good first step to really provide some security, to provide some civil rights protections, and to ensure that we take the first step to regulate facial recognition technology.”

Users may be a bigger problem than tech in itself

The bug in the system, however, may be that all-too common pest: humans. Writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia notes that “police use of facial recognition poses a massive risk to civil liberties, privacy, and even our physical health” – the key verb phrase being “police use.”

AB 1814, Guariglia says, “would do little to actually change the status quo of how police use this invasive and problematic technology.”

“Police departments and facial recognition companies alike both maintain that police cannot justify an arrest using only algorithmic matches,” he says. “So what would this bill really change? It only gives the appearance of doing something to address face recognition technology’s harms, while inadvertently allowing the practice to continue.”

The EFF also says accountability measures are absent from the bill, which it says includes “neither a suppression remedy nor a usable private cause of action.” It has signed a letter from more than 50 advocacy organizations opposing the bill.

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