OAKLAND, Calif. (July 17, 2019) – Yesterday, the Oakland City Council unanimously voted to ban facial recognition technology in the city. Final passage into law would not only increase privacy in the city; it would also take a step toward limiting a massive federal surveillance program.
The ordinance prohibits Oakland government agencies, including police, from “acquiring, obtaining, retaining, requesting, or accessing” facial recognition technology. The ban includes accessing information obtained through facial recognition technology used by agencies outside of the city. The ordinance defines facial recognition as “an automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying or verifying an individual based on an individual’s face.”
The ordinance was approved with no dissenting votes. It will have to pass a final vote on Sept. 17 before going into effect.
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California attorney Matt Cagel spoke in favor of the Oakland ordinance. He said facial recognition technology gives police “unprecedented ability to track people.”
“You simply cannot leave your face at home.”
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are partnering to create a massive, nationwide facial recognition system. The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.
The Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at perpetuallineup.org. The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests. The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.
“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls, by and large, don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”
There are significant questions about the reliability and accuracy of facial recognition. In a test run by the ACLU, Amazon’s facial recognition tool “Rekognition” incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.
With facial recognition technology, police and other government officials have the capability to track individuals in real-time. These systems allow law enforcement agents to use video cameras and continually scan everybody who walks by. According to the report, several major police departments have expressed an interest in this type of real-time tracking. Documents revealed agencies in at least five major cities, including Los Angeles, either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology with the capability, or expressed written interest in buying it.
In all likelihood, the federal government heavily involves itself in helping state and local agencies obtain this technology. The feds provide grant money to local law enforcement agencies for a vast array of surveillance gear, including ALPRs, stingray devices and drones. The federal government essentially encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. Passage of SB342 would eliminate one avenue for gathering facial recognition data. Simply put, data that doesn’t exist cannot be entered into federal databases.