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Open Letter: Reject LAPD Face Recognition

This is an open letter to the Police Commission, which will vote in January on whether to approve LAPD’s new policy on face recognition surveillance. To add your organization or group to the letter, fill out this form. You can also send public comment to the Police Commission using this tool.

Los Angeles Police Commissioners:

We are writing to oppose the Special Order concerning face recognition surveillance that Chief Moore has asked you to approve. This request follows recent revelations that LAPD secretly used face recognition surveillance while lying to the public, claiming it did not use this technology at all. It also comes at a time when cities across California and the U.S. are banning police face recognition.¹ Los Angeles should follow that example, not reward LAPD for secretly using this harmful technology.

For years the LAPD has misled the public about its widespread use of face recognition. This September, the L.A. Times broke the news that LAPD “has used facial recognition software nearly 30,000 times since 2009,” with “hundreds of officers” running face searches of images from “surveillance cameras and other sources,” including photographs taken “during protests in the city this summer.” These revelations came after LAPD “consistently denied having records related to facial recognition, and at times denied using the technology at all.” As recently as summer 2019, LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein told the Times: “We actually do not use facial recognition in the Department.” LAPD also refused to disclose its use of this technology in response to Public Records Act requests filed by reporters and community groups including the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.²

LAPD must not be rewarded for its years of hiding its use of face recognition with a policy normalizing and approving this harmful technology. Face recognition surveillance is a highly dangerous weapon that communities across the country are starting to treat as unacceptable in any form. The California Legislature has already warned about the danger of face recognition surveillance and condemned its use.³ Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM — three companies responsible for early development of this technology — announced this year that they would end sales to law enforcement agencies, citing the unique danger of placing face recognition in police hands. A consensus is emerging that only safe response to this technology is absolute prohibition, akin to bans on use of biological and chemical weapons.

The specific face recognition platform that LAPD uses is among the most dangerous implementations of this technology. This platform was built by DataWorks Plus, a South Carolina company whose face recognition platforms have been banned or criticized in other cities. The same platform was used in San Francisco from 2017 to 2019, when it was outlawed. DataWorks Plus also built the face recognition platform used by the Detroit Police Department, which incorporates the same three algorithms used in the Los Angeles platform. Detroit Police Chief James Craig has admitted that this system is wrong about approximately 96% of people it identifies.

The DataWorks Plus system has even caused wrongful prosecutions. This summer, the New York Times reported that the DataWorks Plus system used in Detroit produced “the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm.” A second example of the same system producing a wrongful prosecution has since emerged. Both the wrongly prosecuted men were Black. LAPD’s deceit about its use of face recognition means there likely have been cases like this in Los Angeles as well. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown has raised “concern that DataWorks Plus is assisting in violating the civil liberties of citizens across the nation where [the company’s] facial recognition technology has been deployed — including in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, South Carolina, and Illinois.”

Those examples of wrongful arrests are no surprise. Face recognition software systemically misidentifies people of color, women, trans and nonbinary persons, and youth, putting our communities at greater risk of police violence and abuse. In December 2019, a federal government study of commercially available face recognition systems — including the specific software used in Los Angeles — determined that they falsely identify Black and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more often than white faces. Another study by MIT and Stanford University researchers found that face recognition software produced error rates of 0.8% for light-skinned men, compared to 34.7% for dark-skinned women.

While LAPD’s current policy addresses searches of “mugshots,” the Department has long tested dangerous forms of real-time face surveillance on the public. In 2004, LAPD began “experimenting with facial-recognition software” on “a hand-held computer with an attached camera” that officers used to determine who to stop, question, and search on the street. These devices were “donated by their developer, Santa Monica-based Neven Vision, which wanted field-testing for its technology.” Even though the devices were “still considered experimental” by Neven Vision, the Rampart Division’s gang unit used them to make more than 20 arrests in late 2004. LAPD later installed “more than a dozen live-monitored CCTV cameras” in undisclosed locations throughout the San Fernando Valley, with the system “programmed to ID people named on ‘hot lists.’” Analysis by Georgetown University researchers showed that “every person who walks by those cameras has her face searched in this way.”

LAPD might claim that its proposed policy creates rules for the Department’s otherwise unregulated use of face recognition. This is a problem of LAPD’s own creation, and the only safe way to confront this dangerous technology is an absolute ban, like many other cities have implemented. No rules, reporting, transparency, or criteria can make the use of face surveillance acceptable. Unless we stop the spread of this technology, it will inevitably be used to monitor the faces of every person moving around in public.

We need to keep Los Angeles safe from this dangerous technology, not allow LAPD to continue experimenting on and harming our communities. We therefore demand that the Police Commission:

  1. Reject LAPD’s proposed “Use of Photo Comparison Technology” policy.
  2. Implement an outright ban on LAPD use of face recognition surveillance.
  3. Investigate LAPD’s past use of face recognition surveillance, to understand how the community has been impacted.

Sincerely,

Stop LAPD Spying Coalition

Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles

Los Angeles Community Action Network

White People for Black Lives

UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy

Street Watch LA

Ground Game LA

NOlympics LA

LA Tech4Good

Los Angeles Tenants Union — East Hollywood Local

Dignity and Power Now

La Defensa

Ktown for All

Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement

UC Cops Off Campus

CSU Cops Off Campus

Abolish Campus Police CSU

UCLA Divest/Invest Student Collective

UCLA Divest/Invest Faculty Collective

Critical Resistance — Los Angeles

Youth Justice Coalition

Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA

Jewish Voice for Peace — Los Angeles Chapter

MLK Coalition of Greater Los Angeles

Veterans For Peace Los Angeles

Reform LA Jails

Anti-Racist Action Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror

Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles

Restore The Fourth

Students Deserve

Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California

American Indian Movement So Cal

Occupy ICE L.A

Homeless Health Care Los Angeles

Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace

Cops Off Campus Faculty Coalition

Saint Mark United Methodist Church of Los Angeles

Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, SoCal

Reimagine Public Safety USC

Free Radicals

The Feminist Front, LA

Tiny Tech Zines

ACLU of Southern California

Essie Justice Group

The Church Without Walls

Creating Justice LA

Community Coalition

League of Women Voters of Los Angeles

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)

The Sidewalk Project

Center for Human Rights and Privacy

FREE! Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE)

Chinatown Community for Equitable Development

California Coalition for Women Prisoners

District Attorney Accountability Coalition

National Action Network Los Angeles

Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles

UCLA/CDU COVID-19 Racism and Equity Task Force

UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice, and Health

Color Coded

San Francisco Public Defender

Western Regional Advocacy Project

Justice Strategies

18 Million Rising

People’s City Council

Gender Justice LA

National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles

The Feminist Front

[1] In California, police use of facial recognition has been banned in San Francisco (in May 2019), Oakland (July 2019), Berkeley (October 2019), and Alameda (December 2019). The technology has also been banned in Boston, Massachusetts (June 2020), Portland, Oregon (September 2020), and Portland, Maine (November 2020).

[2] Along with denials of requests by media, LAPD denied CPRA Requests #19–5156 and #19–7474, claiming it had no responsive records regarding specific face recognition systems. LAPD also denied a CPRA seeking “documents relating to its use of face recognition.” Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, The Perpetual Lineup: Los Angeles, https://www.perpetuallineup.org/jurisdiction/los-angeles.

[3] On November 18, 2019, the Legislature declared the following:

Facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology pose unique and significant threats to the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors.

The use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights. This technology also allows people to be tracked without consent. It would also generate massive databases about law-abiding Californians, and may chill the exercise of free speech in public places.

Facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology has been repeatedly demonstrated to misidentify women, young people, and people of color and to create an elevated risk of harmful “false positive” identifications.

The use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance would disproportionately impact the civil rights and civil liberties of persons who live in highly policed communities. Its use would also diminish effective policing and public safety by discouraging people in these communities, including victims of crime, undocumented persons, people with unpaid fines and fees, and those with prior criminal history from seeking police assistance or from assisting the police.

California AB-1215, Section 1 (2019–2020).

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Los Angeles has a new voice on the left. KNOCK is a journalism and commentary project by Ground Game LA, a community organization that fosters civic empowerment and political engagement. If you have secure information you’d like to share with us, email knocklatips@protonmail.com

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