Facial recognition software erroneously matched 1 in 5 California lawmakers for criminals: ACLU

California Assemblyman Phil Ting does not have a rap sheet, but he was recently mistaken for a criminal in an experiment conducted to prove his point: That facial recognition technology can be unreliable.

Ting (D-San Francisco) is hoping that this is the type of error that will get his bill,  AB 1215, to pass in the Senate ans become a statewide law banning California law enforcement from using the technology with the cameras they wear while on duty. 

"This experiment reinforces the fact that facial recognition software is not ready for prime time - let alone for use in body cameras worn by law enforcement," Ting said. "I could see innocent Californians subjected to perpetual police line-ups because of false matches. We must not allow this to happen."

New Hampshire and Oregon already prohibit facial recognition technology on body-worn cameras, and San Francisco, Oakland and Somerville, Mass., also recently enacted bans for all city departments as well as police.

Ting, who held a news conference on Tuesday, was one of 26 California legislators who was incorrectly matched with a mug shot in a recent test of a common face-scanning program by the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, in a similar experiment done with photos of members of Congress, the software erroneously matched 28 federal legislators with mug shots. There is little current federal regulation of facial recognition technology.

In the most current experiment, the ACLU data showed that about 1 in 5 California legislators was mistakenly matched to a criminal mug shot, against a database of 25,000 publicly available booking photos. Other lawmakers on the list were fellow Democrats, Assemblyman David Chiu and state Sen. Wiener. The ACLU used photos of all 120 state legislators in the experiment and an independent expert from UC Berkeley verified the results, Ting said. 

Amazon has called the ACLU data and experiment was flawed. 

If passed, the law would make California the largest state to ban the software, according to the ACLU, the bill's sponsor. The bill would ban not just facial recognition, but other "biometric surveillance systems" such as those that analyze a person's gait or log tattoos.

Supporters of the technology contend it could be an important law enforcement tool, especially when policing large events or searching for lost children or elderly people. The bill is opposed by many law enforcement groups.

Police "aren't using the technology to spy on people," said Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. "We're using it as a means to identify criminals. Legislators must not stop us from keeping our communities safe."

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.