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Bernie Sanders wants to ban police use of facial recognition tech

He’s the first 2020 candidate to call for a ban on the controversial surveillance technology.

Senator Bernie Sanders giving a speech
Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that he would ban police use of facial recognition technology as part of his 2020 presidential platform on criminal justice reform.
Paras Griffin/WireImage

Facial recognition technology has found a new foe: Bernie Sanders.

The Democratic presidential candidate announced his plan over the weekend to ban police use of facial recognition technology as part of a wider overhaul of the criminal justice system. He is the first major politician running for president in 2020 to take this stance against the controversial surveillance technology.

Facial recognition technology, which analyzes pictures or live video of people’s faces in order to identify them, has increasingly faced regulators’ scrutiny in recent years. That’s mainly because of the technology’s proven bias against people of color and women, as well as concerns that because it would allow the government to perpetually surveil people, it could have a chilling effect on free speech.

“Police use of facial recognition software is the latest example of Orwellian technology that violates our privacy and civil liberties under the guise of public safety and it must stop,” a spokesperson for Sanders’s campaign told Recode. “Bernie is proud to join cities like San Francisco in banning the use of this technology for policing, and as President will enact a nationwide ban on facial recognition software for policing, including at the state and local levels.”

Recently, regulators and legislators on both sides of the political aisle have acted at the federal and local level to restrict use of the powerful surveillance technology. Three cities — San Francisco, Oakland, and Somerville, Massachusetts — recently banned law enforcement use of it, and several other major cities are considering doing the same. Two top lawmakers in Congress are also working on a bipartisan bill that could potentially stop the federal government’s purchase of any facial recognition tools. And the House Oversight Committee held two hearings in May where lawmakers raised serious concerns about its use.

Many law enforcement agencies across the US today use facial recognition technology to identify anyone deemed suspicious. Several government agencies — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI — use facial recognition tech to help detain and arrest individuals. Police departments in at least two US cities have publicly employed Amazon’s version of the technology, called Rekognition. (One of those cities, Orlando, canceled the partnership amid public scrutiny and technical limitations.)

While other Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker have spoken critically of facial recognition scanning, so far, none has gone as far as proposing a ban on the technology.

“Having a candidate come out now and specifically call for a ban is significant,” Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told Recode. “It sets the bar that this is a popular position for candidates to take on this issue rather than saying something more wishy-washy like ‘we’ll take a look at it.’”

The fact that Sanders is calling for a ban on police use of facial recognition technology in his campaign platform is a sign of just how politically popular it’s become to resist the adoption of this tool. And while it’s too early to say for sure, Sanders’s stance could end up pushing his opponents to do the same.

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