Advocates Call on DA Zappala to End Use of Facial Recognition Technology

ACLU of Pennsylvania
3 min readOct 21, 2019


On October 17, 21 organizations based in Allegheny County sent a letter to District Attorney Stephen Zappala calling on him to be more transparent in the operations of his network of 1,000-plus cameras and to end the use of facial recognition technology. The letter is below.

Dear District Attorney Zappala:

We understand that the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office is considering implementing facial recognition technology in conjunction with surveillance cameras and license plate readers. We ask that your office commit to not using facial recognition technology and to having greater transparency with respect to use of surveillance technology.

Use of facial recognition technology raises several concerns. In conjunction with surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology could be used for general, suspicionless surveillance in violation of citizens’ privacy rights. Also, the harms from the use of facial recognition technology will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and immigrant communities. These communities already experience racially biased policing and enforcement practices. Facial recognition represents a dangerous new tool that will further contribute to over policing — and the wrong type of policing — in our communities.

Research has shown that facial recognition technology is particularly inaccurate when attempting to identify people of color and women.1 Similarly, the ACLU recently ran photos of members of Congress through Amazon’s “Rekognition” facial recognition product and found that 28 members of Congress incorrectly “matched” with mugshot booking photos of arrestees. Of the false matches, 39 percent were people of color, even though people of color make up only 20 percent of lawmakers in Congress. Use of facial recognition technology would disparately impact people of color and women and fray relationships and trust between law enforcement and policed communities.

Monitoring children with facial recognition technology is particularly troubling. Facial recognition technology is less accurate with children’s faces, and children should not be subjected to surveillance. Children are still
developing and should be given opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement. False identifications leading to false accusations are particularly damaging to children. Further, subjecting children to surveillance creates an atmosphere of distrust with potential long-term emotional consequences and no proven benefit.

We also ask that your office provide more transparency with respect to surveillance technology in general. For example, your office should provide information regarding who has access to data and information collected from surveillance technology, what safeguards are in place to protect citizens’ privacy, and what measures are in place to preserve and disclose
potential exculpatory evidence collected from surveillance technology.

The underlying issue here is one of trust and of wise resource allocation. Allegheny County should shift resources toward better supporting the health and well-being of our residents and their neighborhoods, rather than increasing the level of law enforcement methods used against members of our community. The use of facial recognition as a law enforcement tactic
sends a message that the only way to keep us safe is by treating us as threats to be monitored, tracked, and incarcerated, using ever-more-sophisticated technology. This approach is counterproductive for accomplishing the goal we all share of building safe communities and is wasteful of millions of dollars that could be better spent on community reinvestment.

Respectfully submitted by the American
Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania
and the undersigned organizations,
Reginald T. Shuford, Esq.,
Executive Director, ACLU-PA

1Hood Media
412 Resistance
Abolitionist Law Center
Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council
Black Political Empowerment Project
Cloaked in Favor Outreach Ministries
Greater Pittsburgh Coalition Against Violence
Hammonds Initiative
Indivisible Pittsburgh
New Voices for Reproductive Justice
One Pennsylvania
Order of the Phoenix
Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network
Poor People Law
The Isaiah Project
The Terrell Johnson Project
West End Power



ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.