Progress in the Fight Against Face Surveillance

Aug 08, 2023
Matt Cagle

Page Media

Illustrated image of a white police officer using face surveillance on a Black family. It

For years, ACLU of Northern California has built momentum to ban the use of face surveillance by law enforcement. That’s why we put all our muscle behind a campaign to defeat AB 642, a bill that would have normalized real-time, mass surveillance. This is a momentous civil rights win for the millions of Californians who don’t want a future where police can secretly identify and track us whenever we’re in public.

AB 642 was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Originally supported by the police, this bill claimed to limit face surveillance, but in reality, would have provided law enforcement with sweeping authorization to use the technology to scan, track, and record people without their knowledge or consent.

For example, the bill would have enabled the police to place Californians in a perpetual virtual lineup by allowing the use of driver’s license photos to power face surveillance and other biometric systems (use of California driver’s licenses for biometrics has been long prohibited). A provision in the bill also would have explicitly condoned the creation of community-wide, realtime face surveillance networks, meaning that people could be forcibly identified every time they passed a police camera—a civil rights nightmare that advocates have called it the digital equivalent of “show me your papers.”

As with other dragnet surveillance practices, face surveillance would disproportionately harm Black and Brown Californians. Face recognition is notoriously less accurate on Black and Brown faces, and it is built upon databases populated with millions of mugshots of Black and Brown victims of the War on Drugs and other discriminatory laws. As a result, people of color are more likely to be identified, profiled, stopped, detained, and entered into these databases, exacerbating a cycle of racially biased policing and incarceration.

Because face surveillance supercharges discriminatory policing and gravely threatens privacy and freedom of expression, the only responsible regulatory approach is a complete prohibition on its use by law enforcement. Any regulation short of a full ban would be like trying to block a cannonball with cardboard. Many privacy and civil rights leaders share our view, and even companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM refuse to sell face surveillance technology to police.

Twenty U.S. cities have prohibited the use of face surveillance. This started in San Francisco, where an ACLU-led civil rights coalition worked to pass a landmark ban in 2019.

Our opposition to AB 642 was so strong that we tagged the bill as a “Justice Denier” so that lawmakers would know that the ACLU would score their legislative record based in part on this bill. We not only defeated AB 642, but also a strong and diverse coalition led by ACLU NorCal has advanced another bill through the Assembly, AB 1034 (Wilson), which moves us a step closer to a world free from dangerous face surveillance. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by Governor Newsom, AB 1034 would prohibit police from using body worn and held cameras for face surveillance. Police body cameras were intended for transparency and accountability, not for officers to use to surveil people going about their daily lives or engaging in social protest.

ACLU NorCal and civil rights partners across the state have put in an immense amount of work to get where we are today. We still have a long way to go, but together, we stopped a terrible bill that would have endangered the rights and safety of Californians and undermined the national movement to protect against this uniquely dangerous surveillance technology