About face: Lawmakers rethink rush to ban facial recognition tools as crime explodes in major cities


OAKLAND, CA – Surging crime in American cities is prompting some in local and state government to rethink the use of facial recognition technology, which had previously been criticized as racially biased and banned in several states.

According to a report by Reuters, the state of Virginia will do an about-face in July on previous policy and eliminate its prohibition just one year after approving it. The state of California and the city of New Orleans could be next to hit reset on what many saw as a rush to judgment on banning the technological crime-fighting tool.

Exploding homicide rates in New Orleans are fueling the police department’s push to reinstate the extra pair of eyes the tool gives crimefighters. Over the past two years, NOLA’s homicide reports rose 67% compared with the two previous years, Reuters said.


New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson announced to the media that he called on the city council to repeal a ban that had gone into effect just last year. Ferguson explained:

“Technology is needed to solve these crimes and to hold individuals accountable.” 

Civil liberties groups pushed back against the chief’s perspective and last week demanded that the city council strengthen, not repeal, its ban.

Citing the supposed risk of wrongful arrests based on faulty identifications, a local group called Eye on Surveillance said New Orleans “cannot afford to go backward.”

Critics of facial recognition said the technology is less effective in identifying black people and is an invasion of privacy, and from 2019 through 2021, about 24 local and state governments moved to restrict its use or ban it outright. The anti-police Black Lives Matter protests gave momentum to the drive.


Current efforts to enact bans are meeting surprising resistance from Democratic strongholds in New York and Colorado. Even highly liberal Vermont, which has a near-100% ban on police facial-recognition use, rewrote its law last year to allow its use while investigating child sex crimes.

Helping to turn the tide against bans is the steady progress being made with image accuracy. Research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology has shown significant industrywide progress in the single most-important element of the tool. Further, Department of Homeland Security testing has found little variation in accuracy across skin tone and gender.
Jake Parker, senior director of government relations with the Security Industry Association, an industry lobbying group, said there is widespread interest in implementing a nondiscriminatory program.
“There is growing interest in policy approaches that address concerns about the technology while ensuring it is used in a bounded, accurate and nondiscriminatory way that benefits communities.” 

A General Services Administration report last month, however, claimed that in its tests, major facial recognition tools disproportionately failed to match black Americans. The agency did not provide details about its testing.

Facial recognition is on the agenda of the new National AI Advisory Committee, which last week began forming a subgroup to study its use in policing.

When Virginia approved its ban, it did so with limited input from facial recognition developers. This year, the companies came prepared to advance legislation that balances individual liberties with the needs of police investigations, said state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat.

Beginning July 1, Virginia police may use facial recognition tools that achieve 98% or higher accuracy in at least one NIST test with minimal variation across demographics.

Critics aren’t happy with the new standard, though, saying it is well-intentioned but imperfect. They said because it isn’t 100% accurate, warrants should be required for facial recognition use.

Vocal critic Os Keyes, an Ada Lovelace Fellow at University of Washington, stated:

“Addressing discriminatory policing by double-checking the algorithm is a bit like trying to solve police brutality by checking the gun isn’t racist: Strictly speaking it’s better than the alternative, but the real problem is the person holding it.”

Virginia still will not allow real-time surveillance and facial matches cannot serve as probable cause in warrant applications. Misuse of the technology is a misdemeanor.

Industry lobbyist Parker called the law:

“. . .the first in the nation to require the accuracy of facial recognition technology used by law enforcement to be evaluated by the U.S. government.”

He also called it:

“The nation’s most-stringent set of rules for its use.”

Former Virginia Delegate Lashrecse Aird, who spearheaded last year’s ban, said companies came back with models designed to beat the bans. She said:

“They believe this ensures greater accountability – it’s progress, but I don’t know.”

A Washington state law requires police agencies to conduct their own tests beforehand “in operational conditions.”

California’s turn toward lawlessness has gained national attention and apparently the attention of some lawmakers. The state in 2019 banned police from using facial recognition on mobile devices such as body-worn cameras. The prohibition expires on Jan. 1, which may prove serendipitous amid the tidal wave of retail theft and smash-and-grab robberies.

But Jennifer Jones, a staff attorney for ACLU of Northern California, sees it as exploiting the crime wave for a police power grab. Amid rising crime statistics, she said, the ACLU has faced resistance to making the ban permanent.

Jones claimed:

“Police departments are exploiting people’s fears about that crime to amass more power. This has been for decades, we see new technologies being pushed in moments of crisis.”

Activists in the East Coast crime capital of New York City still are pressing for a facial recognition ban despite daily reports of terrifying street crimes. Mayor Eric Adams is a proponent of the technology and stated it could be used safely under existing rules.

In West Lafayette, Indiana, officials have twice over the past six months thwarted an effort to ban facial recognition, citing its value in criminal investigations. Mayor John Dennis, a former police officer, said:

“To ban it or chip away from its application would be a little short-sighted.”

Democrat David Sanders, the city councilman behind the proposals to ban facial recognition, said concern about worsening low morale among officers was “dominating people’s reactions.”

Sanders, who is running for a newly drawn District 23 state Senate seat, apparently wants to convince his constituents that using technology to hunt down criminals is merely an antidepressant for police departments, rather than an effective crimefighting tool.

Facial recognition and other biometric tools are here to stay and will continue to progress in accuracy. It would make sense that lawmakers embrace the technology while ensuring that citizens’ privacy is respected.


Portland passes strictest ban in the nation on use of facial recognition technology by police, businesses

September 10, 2020

PORTLAND, OR The Portland City Council recently passed a ban on specified uses of facial recognition technology across the city – and this ban happens to the strictest ban ever enacted within the nation.

Facial recognition technology has been a topic of heated debate when it pertains to citizens’ rights to privacy and now Portland is among the cities pushing back against said tech. Now the software is banned from use by city bureaus and extremely limiting the manner in which they’re used by private businesses.

This ban is the first ever in the United States to be enacted that specifically restricts how private companies use facial recognition software.

So the restriction being imposed on private businesses doesn’t bar business owners from having and using facial recognition software exactly – but business owners cannot have the software used in a way where the technology is facing a public area like a sidewalk or street.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty introduced the agenda on September 9th, and the matter was passed unanimously across the City Council.

Commissioner Hardesty mentioned privacy concerns being the most important element to enacting said ban and restrictions:

“We own our privacy. And it’s our obligation to make sure that we’re not allowing people to gather it up secretly and sell it for profit or fear-based activity.”

During public testimony on the then-proposed ban before it passed, Darren Golden, policy strategist for the Urban League of Portland, was among those in favor of banning and restricting the use of the technology:

“The opposition to these bans will say [facial recognition technology] could be good, that we need to wait to see if this can be made better, that the algorithm can be made perfect. All of that is wrong. You cannot consent to having your facial data taken by camera on any public access way. Ever. You just can’t.”

Considering the sentiments mentioned by Golden, stating that people can’t consent to having their “facial data taken by camera on any public access way” – it’s rather interesting that Portland still uses red light cameras.

Albeit, while the technology between red light cameras is vastly different from facial recognition software, the result is somewhat synonymous. Because while a red light camera isn’t using one’s face to identify them – the technology is using their license plate which leads to the same outcome.

However, one blaring caveat is that facial recognition software has a bit of an issue when it comes to those with a darker hue skin. While the error rate for Caucasian men was .08% on positive matches, a study revealed that there’s a 34.7% error rate on positive matches when it comes to darker skinned women.

Basically, facial recognition software has a tendency to think that black women look fairly alike.

But there are some concerns that this ban wasn’t due to wanting to protect the privacy of innocent Portlanders – but rather make it so that the tech can’t be used in the event of rioters in the streets.

However, considering that this ban won’t go into effect until next year, it is uncertain whether that was a genuine hidden motivation by those who proposed the motion to enact the ban and restrictions on the use of said tech.

The latest set of bans and restriction on the software are reportedly going to go into effect on January 1st of 2021.

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