Technology commission formally asks city for moratorium on facial recognition technology

A city commission tasked with studying technology voted Wednesday to transmit a long-awaited white paper to the city calling for a moratorium on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology until it can demonstrate that the benefits of such surveillance outweigh the risks it poses to civil rights and racial equity.

The vote comes seven months after the Technology and Innovation Commission first released its draft white paper, and more than three months after voting to approve the document in general.

“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 the commission’s final white paper on facial recognition tech that sums up the panel’s thinking.

The commission’s white paper will be attached to a letter approved last month by the city’s Equity and Human Relations Commission that called for a complete ban on the Long Beach Police Department’s use of a variety of surveillance equipment and software, including facial recognition tech.

“While some cities have attempted to reform the technology, it is the opinion of the [Equity commission] that racist technology cannot be reformed, it must be banned altogether,” that panel’s letter states.

The two documents will be transmitted together to the city manager’s office sometime in the next 30 days, according to Lea Eriksen, the city’s director of Technology and Innovation. From there, it will be up to the city manager to distribute them to the mayor and city council, she said.

Alanah Grant, the city’s Equity Officer, said it made sense to package the two recommendations together since the Equity and Human Relations Commission had examined the issue at the request of the Technology commission.

Though the two commissions ultimately approved different recommendations, “everyone is pointed in the same direction,” Technology and Innovation Commissioner Justin Hectus said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The Technology and Innovation Commission’s white paper includes three policy recommendations regarding facial recognition tech:

  • 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.

Commissioners have been studying police surveillance 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.

In testimony before the City Council last year, LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish denied the department uses facial recognition to conduct “mass surveillance.” Instead, the department takes 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.

UPDATE: Equity commission recommends ban on some police surveillance technologies

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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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