Face recognition: San Francisco becomes first USA city to ban technology

Sergio Conner
May 16, 2019

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ban the use of facial recognition by city agencies, a first-of-its-kind measure that has inspired similar efforts elsewhere.

The San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney's Office have both said that they now do not use facial recognition software; under the new ordinance they are unlikely to be able to do so without extensive public debate.

It would also require every city agency to disclose all the surveillance equipment it possessed and to seek board approval for any future technology that collects, retains or processes an individual's data.

The vote was passed by San Francisco's supervisors 8-1, with two absentees.

San Francisco, long one of the most tech-friendly and tech-savvy cities in the world, is now the first in the United States to prohibit its government from using facial-recognition technology. They felt the technology would keep people from visiting public places like parks, schools, city buildings, shopping centers or other visitor attractions. The Department of Homeland Security said last month that it wanted 97 percent of all departing air travelers to undergo a facial-recognition scan by 2023. It allows continued use of surveillance tools like security cameras; the district attorney or sheriff can make an appeal to use certain restricted technology in exceptional circumstances as well.

The proposal, put forward by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, bans city government entities from using the technology, including the police force.

The technology is used in several cities across the country, but is not being deployed in San Francisco, despite local concerns.

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Yet AI researchers and civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are particularly concerned about accuracy and bias in facial-recognition systems.

The ACLU is one of many civil-rights groups supporting the ordinance. California's senate is now considering a bill that would ban police in the state from using biometric technology - such as facial recognition - with body-camera footage.

Nevertheless, the vote represents a clear and dramatic position by a city that sits at the heart of the global technology industry and as such is likely to act as a catalyst for other cities worldwide. "These are very reasonable uses of the technology, and so to ban it wholesale is a very extreme reaction to a technology that many people are just now beginning to understand".

A second reading of the so-called Stop Secretive Surveillance ordinance is expected to be approved at an upcoming board meeting, when it will officially become law.

ITIF's VP Daniel Castro also told reporters this week that San Francisco ban was going too far and that "an across-the-board ban on something that has some beneficial uses is very misguided and hurts the citizens and the police from using it in beneficial ways".

Google has said it won't offer a general-purpose facial-recognition tool until it works through "important technology and policy questions".

The city's airport and seaport also remain unaffected by this bill as they are run by federal, not local, agencies. "The public increasingly understands the threat this technology can pose and that isn't what they want".

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