Facial recognition tech could be banned in this city today

Passersby walk under a surveillance camera that’s part of a facial recognition technology test at a train station in Berlin. A ban in San Francisco would prevent the city’s police from using similar technology.

Steffi Loos / Techhnews

The city of San Francisco will vote Tuesday on whether to bar the police department and other city agencies from using facial recognition on residents. If approved, it would be the first ban of the technology in the country.

The ordinance also creates a process for the police department to disclose what surveillance technology they use, such as license plate readers and cell-site simulators that can track residents’ movements over time. But it singles out facial recognition as too harmful to residents’ civil liberties to even consider using.

“The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring,” the ordinance says.

The ban would be a first, but San Francisco isn’t alone. Several other cities are considering facial recognition bans, including Oakland and Berkeley in California, as well as Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s part of a larger backlash against the technology from privacy advocates, as well as lawmakers and even other tech companies.

For example, Microsoft asked the federal government in July to regulate facial recognition technology before it gets more widespread, and said it declined to sell the technology to law enforcement. As it is, the technology is on track to become pervasive in airports and shopping centers and other tech companies like Amazon are selling the technology to police departments.

Watchdogs have two major concerns. First, they say the technology suffers from higher error rates depending on a person’s gender and race. Second, when the technology inevitably improves, facial recognition will enable governments, as well as private companies, to know everything about everyone’s movements and daily life.

“We’ve never consented to being tracked the minute we walk outside our door when we’ve never been suspected of wrongdoing,” said Brian Hofer, the executive director of privacy advocacy group Secure Justice. Hofer is advising Aaron Peskin, the San Francisco County Supervisor who introduced the ordinance. San Francisco is both a city and a county, and its laws are voted on by its Board of Supervisors.

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The San Francisco Police Department said in a statement that it doesn’t use facial recognition technology. Hofer said that’s his organization’s understanding as well.

“The San Francisco Police Department’s mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression,” the department said in its statement. “We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco.”

Banning the police from using facial recognition outright would take away a potentially valuable public safety tool, said Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who advises police departments on surveillance technology.

It shouldn’t be unfettered, he said, but police have legitimate reasons to use the technology at large events that attract outside attention, like the Super Bowl, or at ports of entry where people are entering the country.

“Governments should be able to use facial recognition,” Wandt said, “with safeguards in place.”

Wandt agreed with civil liberties advocates that a major point of concern is how long government entities keep facial recognition records and other surveillance data. The longer they exist, the more comprehensive an understanding you have of people’s movements over time.

Several other California cities have already enacted laws that create transparency requirements for surveillance technology that are similar to the one’s in San Francisco’s ordinance. They require police departments to explain which technologies they are using and submit to a public comment process.

Mana Azarmi, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the ban of facial recognition pushes the conversation even further.

“The debate about this ordinance will help inform the larger conversation about facial recognition,” he said.

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