California Governor Signs Bill to Ban Facial Recognition Used by Police

Andrew Gu ‘23

On October 8, 2019, California governor Gavin Newsome signed a bill, which will block law enforcement from integrating facial recognition and other forms of invasive biometric surveillance technology into police body cameras for three years; it is projected to go into effect in January of 2020. Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democratic representative of the 19th Assembly District in the California State Assembly, introduced the bill, AB 1215, citing growing concerns that the addition of facial recognition would make it possible for body cameras to become 24-hour surveillance devices. 


The stated goal of the bill was to reduce the intrusion of law enforcement in civilians’ daily lives. Many argue that technology can give law enforcement power over civilians and the power to identify individuals on the spot. For example, Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that “With this law, California has acted boldly to protect civil rights and civil liberties from the threats posed by unprecedented surveillance technology.”


The California lawmakers that voted in favor of the bill have stated that they aim to foster free and healthy communities where people can feel safe and that banning the threat of constant surveillance is a step towards reaching that goal. Ting has described the bill as, “a proactive piece of legislation. We wanted to introduce the legislation before it became a major issue.”


A recent ACLU study found that the software had “incorrectly ‘matched’ 26 California state lawmakers with photos from a database of arrest photos”; the ACLU concluded that the software was not accurate enough to identify people 100% of the time. This flaw in the software has led its critics to argue that using it would facilitate police brutality against people of color, which the software tends to misidentify.


Axon, a major producer of the body cameras in question, echoed those sentiments when it announced that it will not integrate facial recognition technology on the grounds that the technology is not advanced enough. Axon cited concerns that the venture would be neither ethical nor feasible.


Even though Axon has left open the possibility of integration in the future once the technology has been improved, they have openly described it as an ethical and technological problem. Axon is a body camera supplier to 47 of the 60 most prominent police agencies in the US, considered to have a monopoly on the body camera industry. It follows that if the integration of facial recognition technology into body cameras, if allowed to happen after the bill’s duration, would lead to facially recognizing body cameras eventually being worn by a majority of law enforcement officers.