San Diego

Critics Say Law Enforcement Use of Facial Recognition Unlawful Under New Law

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says further use of the Tactical Identification System would violate state law

During the course of the past three years, law enforcement agencies have relied on facial recognition scans as an investigative tool. Officers in the field can use a tablet or smartphone to take a photo of a person in order to find out if that person has an active warrant or criminal past they should be aware of.

But a new law recently signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom has put a temporary stop to using facial scans and other “biometric surveillance.” That law is set to go into effect on January 1, 2020.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties organization that focuses on digital surveillance, is calling on the San Diego Association of Governments, SANDAG, stop using the 1,309 face-recognition cameras which are mounted to cell phones and tablets to law enforcement officers and agents. 

“[W]e urge the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to begin the process immediately to suspend this fatally flawed program that threatens the civil liberties of people in California,” wrote Dave Maas, a senior investigative researcher for EFF - and former San Diego journalist.

In 2016, NBC 7 Investigates found law enforcement agencies across San Diego County were using the technology more frequently, often without the consent of the person they snapped a photo of. 

According to data obtained by EFF, 30 law enforcement agencies now have access to the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS). Of all those agencies, the San Diego Police Department utilizes the system the most. In 2018, according to the data, the police department used facial recognition scans more than 8,000 times, nearly double the amount of times used in 2016.

La Mesa Police Department used the system the second-highest amount at 2,817 times, followed by Chula Vista Police Department with 2,549, and then by San Diego Harbor Police which used the system 2,412 times in 2018.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also claimed that SANDAG failed to discuss the use of facial recognition scans at a board hearing.

“TACIDS policies are required to be brought before the SANDAG Public Safety Committee and the SANDAG Board of Directors ‘at least once per year for review and determination regarding the need for amendments.’ A review of Public Safety Committee meeting agendas on the SANDAG website indicates that no such hearing on the TACIDS policy has occurred in several years.”

And while local law enforcement agencies conducted the vast majority of facial recognition scans, the EFF raised issues with SANDAG for allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, as well as Border Patrol to use the Tactical Identification System. Doing so, said EFF, could violate a state law preventing state resources to go towards federal immigration enforcement.

A spokesperson for SANDAG did not respond to a request for comment on whether the TACIDS system will be taken offline per the new state law.

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