As facial recognition technology makes its presence felt across the globe, the city of San Francisco is preparing to ban its use by local agencies. Additionally, the city's police force is expected to disclose the surveillance technology it currently has in place.
The ban and the disclosure come as a part of an ordinance to be voted on Tuesday by the city's Board of Supervisors, which both proponents and detractors expect to pass. After the ordinance is passed, any city agency wishing to buy a surveillance system would have to present it to the Board first.
“If we don’t put responsible safeguards in place now and the technology continues to advance in ways the law isn’t able to keep up with, existing disparities and existing biases will run the risk of only being further exacerbated,” says Nathan Sheard, an organizer at the San Francisco privacy-promotion group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
The police disclosure would apply to street-level surveillance systems like automated license plate readers (ALPRs) and cell-site simulators, otherwise known as Stingrays or IMSI catchers. ALPRs can portray a driver's personal life by showing records of a person driving near an immigration center, gun store, or any other location. Cell-site simulators can do the same thing by pinpointing the location of phones with greater accuracy than cell companies.
But the Board's main target is facial recognition, the technology that has increasingly become associated with authoritarian measures. Perhaps the most sweeping embrace of facial recognition has come from China, which has trumpeted its ability to find a single criminal amidst giant crowds. It's also been used to publicly shame pedestrians into stopping jaywalking.
The technology has come under fire across the globe for a variety of reasons. In England, complaints about racial bias have emerged. In America, the FBI's facial recognition system has a sky-high error rate of nearly 15 percent.
"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 says.
The ban won't have a huge impact on the day-to-day of the San Francisco Police Department, which says it stopped testing the technology in 2017 and hasn't had any plans to bring it back since.
“(Our) mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression,” says David Stevenson, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, to the local Mercury News. “We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco.”
But still, some hope the city will reconsider. Stop Crime SF, a crime-reduction community group, would rather see "a moratorium until the technology improves," according to the group's op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. "This would give companies an incentive to fix the problems and create a tool for public safety that might be helpful when used responsibly."
Cities across the country are struggling with how new technology is changing. Last year, the town of Plattsburgh, New York passed the first moratorium on Bitcoin mining .