San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Surveillance

A security camera watches over San Francisco’s Financial District on May 7, 2019. San Francisco is poised to become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other local government agencies, reflecting a growing public backlash against a technology that’s increasingly finding its way into airports, motor vehicle registries, department stores, workplaces and home security cameras. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the use of facial recognition technology Tuesday, a move praised by some as preventing intrusive government surveillance and denounced by others as “anti-technology.”

Beyond banning facial recognition, the newly approved ordinance will require city departments to submit policies detailing how they use surveillance technology within 180 days. Each policy must be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the legislation, said the ordinance is about creating a transparent process for reviewing how city government agencies use, store and share citizens’ private information obtained through technologies like security cameras and license plate readers.

“The fundamental thrust is to ensure the safe and responsible use of surveillance technology,” Peskin said.

Although San Francisco is the first known city to ban facial recognition technology, it is not the first to require written and approved policies for surveillance equipment. Seattle and the Bay Area cities of Oakland and Berkeley have passed similar laws.

Not everyone is on board with the city’s decision to ban facial recognition technology. Daniel Castro, vice president of the industry-backed think tank Information Technology Innovation Foundation, called the ban “misguided.”

By forbidding the use of technology that can help solve and deter crime, Castro said San Francisco is missing a critical opportunity to make the city safer.

“Rather than exploring how to do this with oversight and safeguards, San Francisco is doing a complete ban,” he said.

Critics of facial recognition technology say it disproportionately misidentifies females and minorities, and that it can be used to track the movements of innocent people and political activists that participate in public protests.

To address those concerns, Castro said the city could require warrants to use the technology to target specific individuals, ban using it to track activists at demonstrations and require a higher accuracy threshold to minimize misidentifications.

The ACLU of Northern California, which supports the ban, argues that even if the technology were 100% accurate, it would still empower the government to keep tabs on ordinary citizens in troubling and unprecedented ways.

“Face surveillance would radically and massively expand the government’s power to track and control people going about their private lives,” said ACLU attorney Matt Cagle in a statement Tuesday. “In overpoliced communities of color, face surveillance would supercharge discriminatory watchlisting and could also be used by ICE to target immigrants.”

The San Francisco Police Department said it welcomes reasonable safeguards that uphold citizens’ rights to privacy and free expression while balancing the need to protect the city’s residents, visitors and businesses.

“SFPD strives to be transparent and understands the need for transparency in the use of emerging technologies,” the department said in an emailed statement.

Nash Sheard, a grassroots advocacy organizer with digital civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the newly enacted rules will help build trust between the police and communities they are sworn to serve and protect.

“This does not prevent law enforcement from being able to evaluate and potentially use this equipment,” Sheard said, referring to non-facial recognition technologies. “It provides an opportunity for informed conversations about making those evaluations.”

The ordinance was approved in a 8-1 vote. Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted against the legislation due to concerns that it might undermine public safety.

The ordinance will require a second vote by the board before it goes to San Francisco Mayor London Breed for final approval.

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