San Francisco bans police from using facial recognition tech on residents

Some residents may be developing the technology but it won’t be permitted for use on their doorstep.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The city of San Francisco has decided to stop the adoption of facial recognition technology in its tracks by banning its use by law enforcement agencies.

San Francisco is slowly becoming a new hotbed for tech startups, some of which might be creating new applications of the technology. However, city officials have decided to restrict its use to prevent residents from being exposed to controversial applications of facial recognition by the police.

An ordinance proposing the restriction was approved on Tuesday and managed to pass by a vote of eight to one. The city is the first area in the country to implement such a ban, as noted by sister site CNET.

Under the terms of the new decree, law enforcement agencies must also be transparent about the forms of surveillance technology they use, especially when these applications are connected to requests for funding or grants.

"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 reads. "Whenever possible, decisions regarding if and how surveillance technologies should be funded, acquired, or used, and whether data from such technologies should be shared, should be made only after meaningful public input has been solicited and given significant weight."

While vehicle registration plate detection and surveillance cameras are generally considered acceptable, facial recognition technology is gleefully being explored by police departments across the globe.

In the United Kingdom, the technology has already been trialed in central London and in prisons

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Researchers have claimed that facial recognition systems often contain inherent bias against women and people of color. A separate study performed in 2018 by ACLU found that Amazon's Rekognition facial recognition technology incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress to profiles belonging to those who have been arrested for crimes in the past.

The bill to ban facial recognition technology from being used by law enforcement was introduced by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin and backed by ACLU of Northern California, alongside other civil liberties groups.

The San Francisco Police Department said in a statement that it does not currently use facial recognition technology but added that until the policy becomes final, it is "unclear what the full impact will be on department operations."

Concerns over government and law enforcement surveillance of the general public are gradually rising, and so a shift to transparency and some forms of restriction can only bring a positive note to the unfortunate road facial recognition appears to be taking.

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Other US cities, too, are considering emulating San Francisco's example, including Oakland,  Berkeley, and Somerville.

Some technology vendors are also actively promoting the creation of restraints on the applications of the technology. Last year, Microsoft signaled its approval of laws controlling facial recognition, with Microsoft president Brad Smith asking governments worldwide to implement the steps necessary to control usage before facial recognition tech becomes too entrenched in society.

Smith argued that unrestrained use of facial recognition could erode democratic rights and individual privacy.

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Microsoft's call comes at a time when China has enthusiastically adopted facial recognition and surveillance technology to monitor the lives of its citizens.

Now going far beyond the Great Firewall, a censorship tool used to clamp down on access to Internet resources, the country is also using a vast spy net to monitor Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority; apps to collect personal data on citizens; a social credit system based on their behavior which can result in restricted opportunities and travel; and BBC tests recently found that Chinese surveillance cameras were accurate enough to pick out a wanted person in only seven minutes. 

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