Eric Brock Jr. has worked for Treasurer Kimberley Yee, Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, Congressman David Schweikert and started the first African American student association at his old high school. Now, at the age of 19, he is taking on how the City of Phoenix uses facial recognition technology.
The Phoenix native filed a citizen’s petition with the city, requesting that the city council discuss implementing policies on how the technology is used and how the data is stored and retained.
His petition requested that Phoenix “research, outline, and define acceptable uses” of facial recognition technology within 15 days of him submitting his petition.
“This is a bipartisan issue that I think everyone can get behind,” Brock told Arizona Mirror over the phone from Washington, D.C., where he is studying political science at American University.
He became interested in the issue after watching what recently unfolded this year in San Francisco.
Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first city to put in place a ban on the use of facial recognition technology. The city’s board of supervisors approved an ordinance that created a litany of restrictions on several different types of surveillance technologies, including an outright ban on its use by local law enforcement and other government entities.
Brock said that debate piqued his curiosity, so he began digging into how the technology is used locally and he was surprised at what he found – or, more precisely, what he didn’t find.
Brock found that there are not many protections on how facial recognition technology is used or implemented in Arizona, and it is generally left up to local governments to decide how it is overseen by the departments that use it.
“I think that should make anybody nervous,” Brock said, mentioning recent protests in Hong Kong where protestors have been knocking down facial recognition camera systems there. His petition echoes those fears that the technology could be used in a way that is unjust or could “exacerbate racial injustice.”
The Phoenix City Council sent the item to a subcommittee for further discussion before it will be brought back to the council.
‘It’s about finding that equilibrium’
As an intern within the City of Phoenix in 2018, Brock got a behind-the-scenes look at how his city functioned.
One of the unique things he learned about while working for DiCiccio was citizen petitions.
“It’s kind of a neat niche policy,” Brock said, adding that it is a simple way that allows for residents to vocalize what policies or procedures they want to see their city pursue.
Citizen petitions merely require one person to file a request with the city, which then has 15 days to respond.
Brock said the citizens petition was the perfect way to bringing the issue of facial recognition security before the council and the general public for a conversation he says is long past due.
“We don’t know what we have in our inventory of facial recognition,” Brock said in reference to what Phoenix may or may not have in regards to the tech.
The Phoenix Police Department works with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which runs a facial recognition program of its own.
However, not much else is known as the two law enforcement agencies in Arizona known to use facial recognition technology – DPS and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office – heavily redact records related to the technology.
But Brock is not too concerned with pushback from local law enforcement, as he is not looking for Phoenix to create an outright ban and understands why police may be interested in utilizing the technology.
“Facial recognition doesn’t need to be a bad thing,” Brock said. “It’s about finding that equilibrium.”
However, he added that the lack of transparency or even discussions on the technology is problematic.
“The lack of discussion is what terrifies me, and what should terrify (all of) us,” Brock said.
Earlier this year when the Mirror attempted to get additional information from the Arizona Department of Public Safety about their facial recognition program, the Mirror’s requests went unanswered.
Earlier this year, the Mirror reported that the Arizona Department of Transportation said it limits federal access to its facial recognition database, which is also utilized by DPS.
ADOT said that only “certified agencies” can obtain information from ADOT’s database of faces for facial recognition purposes, such as for use in an active investigation, court proceeding or court order.
The agency said that the system helps prevent identity theft and fraud.
ADOT has said it does not provide federal agencies with access to the database unless required to by a court order, and DPS did not respond to questions about whether it has shared its data with agencies like ICE.
Previously released public records show that, starting in 2006, DPS entered into an agreement with ADOT and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to “coordinate data exchange in instances where there are homeland security implications.”
The Department of Homeland Security oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The 2006 agreement, which was later renewed in 2009, stipulates that ADOT and the state’s Motor Vehicle Division will provide downloads of MVD data, including stored images, documents, driver’s license records, vehicle registration documents and more. DPS did not say whether the 2009 agreement is still active.