San Francisco passes city government ban on facial recognition tech

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to approve a ban on the use of facial recognition tech by city agencies. The measure,  known as the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, will be the first ban of its kind for a major American city and the seventh major surveillance oversight effort for a municipality in California. The ordinance passed by a vote of eight to one, with San Francisco District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani dissenting.

Importantly, the ordinance also includes a provision that would require city departments to seek specific approval before acquiring any new surveillance equipment. The proposal bans local government uses of facial recognition technology, including applications by police. The ban would not impact facial recognition tech deployed by private companies, though it would affect any companies selling tech to the city government.

In 2016, Santa Clara county passed its own predecessor to San Francisco’s surveillance oversight policy, but that ordinance did not include a ban. Last week, the board’s Rules Committee elected to move forward with a vote on the proposal.

“I want to be clear — this is not an anti-technology policy,” Peskin said during Tuesday’s board meeting. Peskin deemphasized the ban aspect of the ordinance, instead framing it as a form of oversight and an outgrowth of the sweeping data privacy reforms signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown last year.

Peskin clarified that the ordinance is an accountability measure “to ensure the safe and responsible use” of surveillance tech and to allow the public to be involved in decisions like how long data is stored and who can see it.

Other cities and states are looking into bans on facial recognition tech, though San Francisco’s own efforts were the most mature. For example, a bill in Washington state would require facial recognition software to open itself to third party testing. In that case, major tech companies are weighing the cost to their future business against public sentiment that facial recognition and other surveillance techniques are an invasive way for tech companies to leverage their power.

Across the bridge from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are both mulling their own regulations on facial recognition tech, known as the Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance and Surveillance Technology Use and Community Safety Ordinance, respectively. The East Bay might not be far behind San Francisco’s own vote.

Among the many more divisive aspects of the facial recognition tech is its impact on people of color. Recent research suggests that non-white individuals are not recognized as accurately as their white peers, a discrepancy that bakes racial profiling right into the tech itself.

The split over the ban is energizing both anti-surveillance groups and proponents of high tech policing. The ban’s supporters include the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and local groups like Oakland Privacy.

“Critics are worried that the U.S. government will use facial recognition for mass surveillance, as the Chinese government is doing,” ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro said of the decision. “… In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China—a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology.”

“If unleashed, face surveillance would suppress civic engagement, compound discriminatory policing, and fundamentally change how we exist in public spaces,” the ACLU of Northern California’s Matt Cagle and Brian Hofer, Chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, wrote in an op-ed arguing in favor the ordinance last week.

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