San Francisco moves to ban use of facial recognition technology

Evarado Alatorre
May 15, 2019

San Francisco is to become the first USA city to outlaw a rapidly developing technology that has alarmed privacy and civil-liberties advocates, as the liberal city's supervisors voted Tuesday to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments. "We're reclaiming our ability to say no to technologies that deface democracy and our ability to live freely". "We can have good policing without being a police state.' And part of that is building trust with the community based on good community information, not on Big Brother technology", said supervisor (councillor) Aaron Peskin, who championed the legislation. Federal use at ports and airports will also be unaffected.

"Hopefully, this catalyzes a conversation both nationally and internationally", Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the vote.

Similar laws banning or regulating various uses of facial ID technology are being considered by the neighboring city of Oakland; the California legislature; Somerville, Massachusetts; and the US Senate.

For instance, Amazon.com Inc has come under scrutiny since a year ago for selling an image analysis and ID service to law enforcement. But the technology will improve and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly. Amazon employees and investors alike have put extensive pressure on the internet giant to end its partnerships with police forces to use its "Rekognition" software.

Last month, lawmakers in Olympia failed to agree on a bill that would have regulated the use of facial recognition technology in Washington state. It was during a protest at Amazon headquarters over the company's facial recognition system. It is seen as just a formality. The ban is part of broader oversight legislation that orders San Francisco departments to spell out details of any surveillance now in use and any surveillance they hope to use.

Supervisors voted eight to one in favor of the "Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance", which will also strengthen existing oversight measures and will require city agencies to disclose current inventories of surveillance technology.

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"San Francisco and the greater Silicon Valley area are important test beds for this sort of legislation due to their proximity to a large number of technology companies that develop and sell surveillance tools of all kinds to governments", Garaffa noted.

The San Francisco proposal, he added, "is really forward-looking and looks to prevent the unleashing of this unsafe technology against the public".

Some companies support regulating the technology, such as Microsoft, although the company is opposed to an outright ban, AP noted.

Alvaro Bedoya directs Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology. "There's something about this technology that really sets the hairs on the back of people's heads up".

Other users, Maas said, include the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in Florida, the California Department of Justice and the Virginia State police.

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