San Francisco just banned facial-recognition technology

Cheryl Sanders
May 15, 2019

San Francisco is the first city in the country to push the issue this far into an outright ban, although at this stage the prohibition is entirely hypothetical as the city police department does not now use the technology.

Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who announced the bill, said that it sent a particularly strong message to the nation, coming from a city transformed by tech.

"The biggest danger is that this technology will be used for general, suspicionless surveillance systems". The ordinance, which outlaws the use of facial-recognition technology by police and other government departments, could also spur other local governments to take similar action. However, it won't have an effect on federally regulated facilities such as the airport and port. A representative at the meeting said the department would need two to four additional employees in order to comply with the legislation.

The rules committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to pass the "Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, which would disallow city and county law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition systems".

No federal laws govern the use of facial recognition nationwide, and more than 50 state or local police agencies across the country have at some point used facial-recognition systems in attempts to identify criminal suspects or verify identities.

San Francisco's police department stopped testing face ID technology in 2017.

All but one of the nine members of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors endorsed the legislation.

"It shall be unlawful for any department to obtain, retain, access, or use any Face Recognition Technology or any information obtained from Face Recognition Technology", read a graph tucked into the lengthy document.

But according to the article, facial recognition technology - integrated into China's huge networks of surveillance cameras - has been programmed to look exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keep records of their movements across China.

In a statement ahead of the vote, the San Francisco Police Department said it "looks forward" to working with the city's supervisors, the ACLU, and others to develop laws that speak to tech-related privacy worries "while balancing the public safety concerns of our growing, worldwide city". Oakland is also now considering whether to ban the use of facial-recognition technology.

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. Frank Noto, president of Stop Crime SF, a group focused on crime prevention, said prior to the vote that his organization recognizes privacy and civil-liberties concerns that may have prompted the ordinance's introduction, but sees it as flawed legislation largely because it requires the police department to get approval from the city for existing surveillance technology.

Do you have more information about this or any other technology story? The group believes a moratorium on using it might be a better option so that it's possible to use the technology when it improves.

Both in the private and public sphere there has been pushback against use of the technology.

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