Technology commission calls for moratorium on city’s use of facial recognition technology

A city commission on Wednesday recommended a moratorium on all current and planned use of facial recognition technology until it can demonstrate that its benefits outweigh the risks it poses to civil rights and racial equity.

At its March 23 meeting, the Technology and Innovation Commission substantively approved three policy recommendations regarding the technology:

  • First, that the city create an “independent commission that possesses authority and oversight” over algorithmic and surveillance technology.
  • Second, that the City Council impose a moratorium on all current and future facial recognition tech.
  • Third, that the city adopt a “framework for vetting and continuously monitoring” surveillance technologies that collect personally identifiable data like facial imagery.

“While some populations are being harmed by this technology at higher rates than others, all residents lose when government deploys emerging technology in an indiscriminate and secretive manner,” states a January 2022 white paper on facial recognition tech that sums up the thinking of the commission.

Commissioners have been working on the white paper since January 2021, when the city asked them to “explore the practice of facial recognition technology and other predictive technology models and their disproportionate impacts on Black people and people of color by reviewing evidence-based practices,” as part of the city’s Framework for Reconciliation passed in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Over the last year, the commission tasked a three-person subcommittee to evaluate the technology, as well as listen to testimony from Long Beach Police Department officials, data privacy experts, a database analyst and officials who developed policies on facial recognition in other cities and states.

The subcommittee also surveyed residents and conducted a series of focus groups that contained a “representative sample of our diverse Long Beach community,” said Commissioner Parisa Vinzant during the meeting.

The Long Beach Police Department is the city’s main user of facial recognition tech, which it uses to generate leads in criminal investigations, according to the white paper.

In earlier testimony before the City Council, LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish has denied the department uses facial recognition to conduct “mass surveillance.” Instead, the department compares video, shot by surveillance cameras or bystanders, and compares it to the 9 million mugshots that make up the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System, or LACRIS, which is maintained by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

LACRIS documents state that the database only “assists in the identification process” of suspects.

While the technology has been used to prevent sex trafficking and locate missing persons, civil rights activists have noted that “algorithmic bias” has led to false identifications and wrongful arrests of people of color, the Technology and Innovation Commission noted in a July 2021 meeting.

​​That year, the ACLU called for a complete ban on all federal government use of facial recognition tech. The civil rights organization said the technology was dangerous because it both “disproportionately misidentifies and misclassifies people of color, trans people, women, and other marginalized groups” and enables “governments to track the public movements, habits, and associations of all people, at all times.”

The commission also voted to send their white paper and policy recommendations to the city council, though it’s unknown when, or even if, they will discuss them

On April 6, Technology and Innovation Commission Chair Gwen Shaffer and Vinzant are scheduled to present their policy recommendations to the city’s Equity and Human Relations Commission.

City commission questions LBPD on its use of facial recognition technology

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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