Six officials in San Francisco this week could change the legal landscape for facial recognition technology in the heart of America’s technology industry.
On Tuesday, San Francisco may become the first city in America to ban the use of facial recognition by the city government. A bill dubbed the “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance” is scheduled to go before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week, and it needs six supervisor votes to become law.
In addition to banning the use of facial recognition technology by police and other city agencies, the broad anti-surveillance measure would institute significant oversight measures for all surveillance tools used by the city. This includes requiring board approval for the acquisition of any new surveillance technology and audits on the city’s existing surveillance tech, including licence plate readers and surveillance cameras.
The bill has faced intense opposition from law enforcement. Namely, Police and Stop Crime SF, a local crime-prevention group, urged action against the bill. But it’s also seen widespread attention and vocal support from civil society groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Oakland Privacy.
While the face recognition ban would be a historic first for a U.S. city, the new oversight rules would put San Francisco on par with Oakland and Berkeley, two other Northern California cities that require legislative approval before using surveillance technology.
The rapid spread of facial recognition technology in the United States and around the world has inspired fierce criticism of heavy-handed policing and deep flaws with the technology itself.
“We can have good security without a security state and we can have good policing without a police state,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the lawmaker who introduced the bill, said last month.
In the U.S., face recognition tech is proliferating despite privacy, bias, and accuracy concerns. Most American adults are in police facial recognition database, according to a Georgetown Law study. So far, at least 17 U.S. airports use facial recognition systems to monitor passengers departing the United States, according to BuzzFeed.
And the Department of Homeland Security says it hopes to scan “over 97 per cent” of departing international passengers by 2023. In the U.S., face recognition tech is also used at sporting events, concerts, toll booths, and more.
An MIT study found that Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition product that’s marketed heavily to police departments, struggles to identify the faces of women and people of colour. A July 2018 study by the ACLU found that Amazon Rekognition falsely matching 28 members of Congress to mugshot photos. The results disproportionately impacted people of colour.
Amazon has contested the findings and other similar studies on the grounds that researchers did not use the technology in accordance with the company’s recommended best practices. However, as Gizmodo reported in January, the only police department Amazon has publicly acknowledged as using Rekognition says it also does not follow those best practices.
Last year, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, urged federal regulation of face recognition due to privacy and human rights pitfalls.
“We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology,” Smith wrote. “As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”