Activists resist proposal allowing police use of facial-recognition technology

Activists resist proposal allowing police use of facial-recognition technology

SAN FRANCISCO -- Many people use facial recognition technology to unlock their phones, but a move to allow law enforcement to use the same technology for public safety is getting push back from some activists.

It's a debate over the public's right to privacy. Facial recognition technology is used every day by millions of to access private data on phones and apps. The use of this technology by law enforcement to solve crimes in California was banned until a moratorium on the practice expired on January 1st of this year. 

Despite public backing for that moratorium, it did not have enough support under the current California legislature. A new bill introduced in the California legislature seeks to place narrow parameters on how law enforcement can use the technology. 

But activist Nathan Sheard warns that any use of facial recognition in law enforcement could impede on a person's right to privacy. 

"Really, there's no way to separate the harm and risk of government use of facial recognition from the use of the technology at all," Sheard told CBS News Bay Area in an interview. 

Sheard has been an activist and organizer for over a decade. His latest fight is to preserve the right to privacy, particularly among peaceful protestors. He argues the proposed legislation could open the door to intimidating people from practicing their constitutional freedom of speech and right to assemble. 

"When you're in a park with several thousand people, there's anonymity there in an absence of government use of facial recognition; that you can go listen to voices and messages that might be controversial without fear that you'll be identified before you're even aware," he explained. "Absent of facial recognition technology, you have that anonymity. It will certainly dissuade people."

Sheard currently works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where he is helping push legislation that protects people's rights to privacy. He says the proposed policy strips a person's right to refusal even if they're not committing a crime. 

Under the legislation, the technology must be set to 98% accuracy — the highest accuracy level available. But Sheard says even the 2% possibility of being misidentified is enough to instill fear. 

"It's even more concerning than simply having an officer walk up to someone on the street and ask for their identification, because it doesn't happen in a way that you would know that it happened," Sheard explained. 

Under Assembly Bill 642, law enforcement could use facial recognition as an aid to an investigation while prohibiting its use as the sole reason for an arrest or search warrant. 

The bill's sponsor — Assemblymember Phil Ting — championed the initial ban on police's use of facial recognition technology. He agrees that a moratorium on the technology is ideal, but says a complete ban does not have enough support to pass under the current state legislature. 

"There's no regulation, which is the Wild West. So any law enforcement agency can do anything they want, but law enforcement agencies would, one by one," he told CBS News Bay Area. "This way, there's a set of statewide best practices."

Ting represents San Francisco, which is one of four California cities that have banned the use of facial recognition among police. Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda have followed suit. He says the bill includes protections for people who are exercising their first amendment rights. 

"That footage from a body camera cannot be used for facial recognition for an arrest," Ting explained. "So anytime you're, you know, just a witness to a crime anytime you were just using your constitutional rights, that facial recognition footage cannot be used against you."

Sheard argues it is a slippery slope, particularly for minorities and undocumented people who he says could be reprimanded for engaging in public protests, and ultimately force people to think twice before speaking out. 

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