The state of California just made it clear: Face recognition surveillance isn’t inevitable. We can — and should — fight hard to protect our communities from this dystopian technology.
Building on San Francisco’s first-of-its-kind ban on government face recognition, California this week enacted a landmark law that blocks police from using body cameras for spying on the public. The state-wide law keeps thousands of body cameras used by police officers from being transformed into roving surveillance devices that track our faces, voices, and even the unique way we walk. Importantly, the law ensures that body cameras, which were promised to communities as a tool for officer accountability, cannot be twisted into surveillance systems to be used against communities.
The rise of face and other biometric surveillance technologies gives governments an unprecedented power to track, classify, and discriminate against people based on their most personal, innate features. This risks forever altering the balance of power between the people and their government, and undermines bedrock democratic values of freedom and privacy.
The threat is no longer science fiction: right now, governments abroad are using this technology to target and oppress marginalized populations. Federal and local agencies in the United States are rushing to deploying these systems, too.
As police agencies and companies in the United States team up to rapidly and recklessly supercharge the surveillance state with face recognition, California is sending a powerful warning: We can — and will — defend our privacy and civil liberties.
California’s law is part of a larger and growing movement to prevent the spread of ubiquitous face surveillance. In May, San Francisco became the first city to prohibit the government acquisition and use of face recognition technology. Since then, Oakland and Berkeley, California, and Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have introduced or adopted bans of their own. And in Detroit and New York City, activists are fighting to prevent the face surveillance of Black communities, tenants, and school children.
These towns and cities are joined by legislatures in Massachusetts, Washington, New York, and Michigan that have introduced state-wide legislation strictly limiting face recognition surveillance. And in Washington D.C., members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are now considering legislation to rein in this technology and have held a series of hearings to investigate its use.
Even companies and shareholders are beginning to recognize a new responsibility to act. This summer, Axon, the country’s largest body camera supplier, announced it would ban face recognition on its products for the foreseeable future. Before that, Google announced it would press pause on a face recognition products for governments.
This impressive progress to bring face surveillance technology under democratic control is no accident. The ACLU’s Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) effort is designed to ensure residents — through their local governments and elected officials — are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used, and to promote government transparency. We’ve brought together a coalition of organizations fighting for the rights of immigrants, Black people, the unhoused, LGBTQ people, criminal defense attorneys, Muslim-Americans, and so many more. Shareholders, AI researchers, and tech employees have also joined in. These campaigns find political power in their diversity.
We’ve exposed law enforcement’s quiet expansion of face surveillance into our communities. Our team has demonstrated how the technology’s numerous flaws can lead to wrongful arrests, use of force, and grave harm. We’ve explained how even perfectly accurate face surveillance technology would remain a grave threat to civil rights, enabling the automatic and invasive tracking of our private lives and undermining First Amendment-protected activity.
Community members are directly reaching out to their legislators to share their personal experiences of police misconduct and discriminatory surveillance. They’re explaining how face recognition — with its unprecedented ability to impose official power and control — will amplify those existing harms and further undermine trust in law enforcement. And they’re demanding their local leaders step up efforts to block this technology from entering their communities.
But as people and their policymakers make progress, companies like Amazon and Microsoft continue to seek profits from face recognition sales to governments. Amazon even pitched its face recognition product — called "Rekognition" — to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And companies like Microsoft have attempted to advance laws that they claim would protect communities, but actually entrench dangerous and discriminatory uses.
Decisions about whether the government has the immense power to identify who attends protests, political rallies, church, or simply walks down the street must be made by you and your elected leaders. They should not be made by corporate executives or by police chiefs acting alone.
Our democracy gives us the power as a society to reject surveillance that is invasive, discriminatory, and wide-reaching. We will continue to use that power to create a society free of face surveillance. We hope you’ll join us in this fight.
Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties attorney, ACLU of Northern California