San Francisco Becomes First U.S. City to Ban Facial Recognition Software

The ban prohibits the technology’s use by police; however, facial recognition can still be used at SFO and the Port of San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco became the first city in the United States on Tuesday to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and all other municipal agencies.

The city’s Board of Supervisors approved the bill, nicknamed “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance,” on an 8-1 vote, with two absentees.  A second vote next week officially passing the bill into city law is largely considered a formality.

The ban prohibits the technology’s use by police; however, facial recognition can still be used at San Francisco International Airport and the Port of San Francisco, which are under jurisdiction of the federal government.

“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 San Francisco ordinance reads.

Commercial businesses and individuals in San Francisco are not prevented from using the software.

Officials in Oakland are considering similar legislation, along with other municipalities and states. In Massachusetts, Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem introduced a bill that would impose a moratorium on facial recognition software in the state until the technology improves.

A bill introduced last month on Capitol Hill would ban users of facial recognition software from collecting and sharing data for identifying or tracking consumers without their consent. The proposed legislation does not address the government’s uses of the technology.

Despite the technology gaining acceptance with some municipalities and governmental agencies in the past several years, facial recognition deployments have raised concerns about civil liberties and racial bias.

A team of researchers at MIT and the University of Toronto in January reported that Amazon’s facial-detection technology, Amazon Rekognition, has been misidentifying women, especially those with darker skin.

Over the last two years, the service was being marketed to law enforcement personnel as a way to identify objects, people, text, scenes and activities, as well as detect inappropriate content, according to Amazon.

Microsoft and IBM have also been challenged by researchers who say their technology misidentifies women and darker-skinned people at higher rates.

Proponents for the use of biometric solutions say the technology has its advantages, such as identifying faces in crowds or age detection. Supporters claim these advantages could be particularly useful in helping law enforcement catch criminals or find missing children.

Among members of San Francisco’s business community and tourism industry to support the use of the technology is Frazer Thompson, vice president of operations at PIER 39. Thompson is overseeing the installation of a new video surveillance solution at the popular waterfront shopping and tourist destination. He tells SSI while there are barriers to deployment the potential security enhancements would be welcome.

“Although the facial recognition software can be integrated with the new AVS system being installed here at the PIER, I am afraid it may be cost prohibitive at this time,” Thompson said. “The fact remains: If it creates a safer and more secure environment for our guests and employees, yes, I will integrate it.”

The technology is being increasingly considered and deployed by police departments, airports, large stadiums and other agencies across the U.S. For example, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is testing facial recognition technology that can identify drivers and passengers on cameras at some bridges and tunnels.

Some U.S. citizens are warming up to the idea of facial recognition technology. A recent survey from the Center for Data Innovation found that only about one in four Americans (26%) want government to strictly limit the use of facial recognition technology. That support drops to fewer than one in five (18%) if it would come at the cost of public safety, according to survey results.

In San Francisco, some local activists argue the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance goes too far and they instead prefer a moratorium on the technology instead of a ban.

“We shouldn’t be using it right now,” Joel Engardio, vice president of the grassroots group Stop Crime SF, told NPR. “The failure rate is too high, and so we absolutely agree with the spirit of this law, but instead of a ban, like a forever ban, why not just stop using it for now, and keep the door open for when the technology improves.”

In a statement, Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said his organization applauds the San Francisco Board of Supervisors efforts in passing the ban, which also requires public input and approval to implement surveillance technology such as body cameras and license plate readers.

“With this vote, San Francisco has declared that face surveillance technology is incompatible with a healthy democracy and that residents deserve a voice in decisions about high-tech surveillance,” Cagle said. “We applaud the city for listening to the community, and leading the way forward with this crucial legislation. Other cities should take note and set up similar safeguards to protect people’s safety and civil rights.”

About the Author

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Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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