Bernie Sanders Is the First Candidate to Call for Ban on Facial Recognition

The Democratic candidate for president published a criminal justice overhaul plan on Sunday which called, among other things, for a ban on the government use of facial recognition.
Bernie Sanders

Democratic senator Bernie Sanders just became the first presidential candidate to call for a ban on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement. A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign said in an email that Sanders plans on introducing a national ban on facial recognition that can be enforced on a state and local level.

The call for banning facial recognition was part of a larger plan for law enforcement oversight and criminal justice overhaul, which the campaign published to its website on Sunday. The plan, called “Justice and Safety for All,” also calls for banning for-profit prisons, ending cash bail, ending solitary confinement, and decriminalizing marijuana.


In May, San Francisco, CA became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement and public entities. Since then, Oakland, CA; and Somerville, MA have also banned police from using or acquiring facial recognition software.

Candidate Julian Castro called for establishing "guidelines for next-generation surveillance technologies, like facial recognition technology." However, no other presidential candidate has called for a national ban on facial recognition by police. Digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future launched a campaign earlier this year calling for a federal ban on government use of facial recognition software. The ACLU has called for banning facial recognition on a local and state level, and halting all use of facial recognition by federal law enforcement.

Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer said in a public statement that facial recognition is "one of the most urgent threats to our basic freedom and human rights today."

“There’s growing bipartisan support to rein in biometric surveillance,” Greer said. “Any 2020 candidate that wants to be taken seriously on tech and civil liberties issues needs to be calling for a ban.”

Earlier this year, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called for federal regulators to investigate the algorithms that power financial services like loan lending. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley found that these services can discriminate against people of color. Last July, Candidate Cory Booker and Senator Ron Wyden called for a survey on 39 federal law enforcement agencies that may use facial recognition. In September, candidate Kamala Harris called for the creation of a committee that would research the federal use of artificial intelligence.

Facial recognition has been routinely criticized by experts. Consistently, and across different companies, facial recognition software has been found to misgender transgender and non-binary individuals, make false-positive matches for people of color, and not account for the way that young people’s faces change over time. In one instance detailed in a report by the Georgetown Law Center, the NYPD fed its facial recognition tool with an image of Woody Harrelson in hope of identifying a Harrelson look-alike a suspect.