‘At a time like this, we need to invest in public health, not waste money on dangerous and unnecessary tech.’
During an Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday, a vote over a controversial facial recognition regulation bill was briefly delayed as the bill was put in a suspense file to await the final state budget.
Legal framework for facial recognition services
Assembly Bill 2261, written by Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), would regulate how facial recognition could be used both publicly and privately. AB 2261 would create agencies to determine the accuracy of facial recognition usage, give notice to the public where facial recognition services are used, and would set about the rights of the people whose faces were recorded and where they could be used. In addition to prior notice, the bill would also establish rules over affirmative consent, independent testing, and human review over the systems and controllers. For example, facially recognized individuals would have the right to challenge and delete footage where they were facially recognized and would set in strict rules over when surveillance could be deployed.
Essentially, AB 2261 would say how facial recognition software and services could legally be used.
Fines of up to $2,500 for each violation and up to $7,500 for each intentional violation would also be set.
Police usage and a need for regulation
Assemblyman Chau has been behind the regulations to law enforcement and others in locating missing children, finding criminals, and other uses such as being a deterrent. In a statement earlier this week, Chau also noted downsides of the technology and offered up his bill as one that would put regulations in place, as there are currently no facial recognition regulations in California.
“In crime-fighting situations where time is of the essence, such as locating missing children, there is no question that facial recognition technology is and has been incredibly useful,” said Assemblyman Chau. “Now that we are fighting COVID-19 and deploying touchless sensor technology to measure body temperatures and track individuals, facial recognition technology is again brought to the forefront.”
“While this technology offers some benefits, its use also comes with serious challenges. For example, there are legitimate concerns regarding the accuracy of these systems on some racial or ethnic groups, and several studies have uncovered biases in facial recognition algorithms. There are also claims on the use of facial recognition systems by state and private entities to target immigrants and people of color, and to oppress religious minorities and discourage free expression.”
“Clearly, the incursion of facial recognition technology in our everyday lives is already present, but we have few tools to discover or limit its use. Why? Because there is no comprehensive facial recognition technology regulation in place.”
Privacy concerns, accuracy concerns, discrimination concerns
While Chau and supporters have said it’s about regulation and privacy protection, most Republicans, minority groups, and civil liberty groups such as the ACLU have come out against AB 2261 because of accuracy concerns not properly addressed in the bill, that it promotes discrimination, and potentially worsens the coronavirus situation.
“Facial recognition systems are a danger to people of color and to immigrants, all of whom are already being hit hardest by this pandemic,” said ACLU attorney Matt Cagle in a press release. “Assembly member Chau is repackaging this bill to make its intent seem more palatable during a public health crisis, but AB 2261 utterly fails as a response to COVID-19. At a time like this, we need to invest in public health, not waste money on dangerous and unnecessary tech.”
“The bill would invite the use of facial recognition to deny health care, housing, financial products, and basic necessities,” added Cagle in a later statement. “Instead of providing real protection to Californians, this bill will further endanger the black and brown people most harmed by COVID-19 and police violence.”
Police usage of facial recognition has also been widely unpopular across California, with many deriding its usage. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego all have facial recognition bans, with many smaller cities also following suit. And last year, AB 1215 was passed, banning police statewide from using facial recognition software on their body cameras.
“Californians, in general, don’t want anything to do with this,” noted civil rights attorney Marshall Horton. “It’s still widely seen as an inaccurate technology. And while regulations could be good, that’s been largely hampered by a host of privacy and discrimination issues. Especially now, with the protests making this an even more sensitive issue.”
“We’ll see where it goes, but based on facial recognition bill history in California, it might not make it out alive, or at least in its present form.”
AB 2261 will be voted on by the Assembly Appropriations Committee after a state budget is decided on, with the Committee having the added benefit of seeing if such a potential law is affordable under the updated budget. The finalized state budget is due by June 15th.
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