California's facial recognition ban for police body cameras heads to governor's desk

California could soon become the largest state to ban the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement body cameras, a significant milestone in the regulation of the burgeoning technology.

The State Assembly on Thursday passed AB 1215, a bill that would impose a three-year moratorium on the technology, garnering praise from privacy and civil liberties advocates. The legislation now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk.

“This is a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties groups on the ground in California who are leading the fight to rein in invasive facial recognition surveillance,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future -- a digital rights group that has advocated for a federal facial recognition ban along with a coalition of other groups -- said in a statement to Fox News.

“But no one should be subjected to automated biometric surveillance––the ultimate Big Brother surveillance weapon––regardless of where they live. That’s why we’re calling on lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level to enact an outright ban facial recognition surveillance,” Greer explained.

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Fight for the Future is calling for a total ban on facial recognition technology at the federal level.

Fight for the Future is calling for a total ban on facial recognition technology at the federal level. (Fight for the Future)

Other states are also considering measures to curtail or ban the technology. In Michigan, two bipartisan bills to ban law enforcement from using the technology are working their way through the state Legislature; in Massachusetts, lawmakers are holding hearings this fall to consider a statewide moratorium on using facial recognition; and in New York, legislation that would ban the technology from being deployed in schools is being considered.

Law enforcement's use of the technology, which was supported by a majority of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center poll, is still controversial.

A test by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Amazon's face recognition software found it falsely matched 26 California state lawmakers, or more than one in five, to images from a set of 25,000 public arrest photographs. Over half of the false positives were people of color. Some lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, want to ban police use of the tech.

A recent report found that motor vehicle departments across the country are taking drivers' personal information and selling it to a range of different businesses, including private investigators, generating millions in revenue.

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Assembly member Phil Ting, a Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said the technology is not ready for primetime.

“Body cameras have been used as a tool to build trust between communities and law enforcement and to provide more transparency,” he told The Washington Post. “Putting facial recognition software into those body cameras helps destroy that trust. It turns a tool of transparency and openness into a tool of 24-hour surveillance.”

Although it isn't currently a common practice for police departments to use facial recognition in their body cameras, advocates worry that could change.

However, some law enforcement groups are opposed to the legislation -- which initially called for a total ban on the technology in body cameras but was scaled back to a three-year moratorium -- claiming it will threaten the ability of police to do their jobs.

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“By banning this technology, California will be announcing to the nation and world that it doesn’t want our law enforcement officers to have the necessary tools they need to properly protect the public and attendees of these events,” the Riverside Sheriff’s Association wrote in a statement on the legislation.

Ting represents San Francisco, which earlier this year became the first city to ban police from using the technology, and was later joined by Oakland, Calif. and Somerville, Mass.

If signed by the governor, the moratorium will go into effect on Jan. 1 and last through the end of 2022.

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