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San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Tech Over Surveillance, Bias Concerns

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 7, 2019, is a security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)
In this photo taken Tuesday, May 7, 2019, is a security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

San Francisco bans facial recognition surveillance technology. We look at the tech-savvy city’s message for the rest of the country.


Clare Garvie, senior associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law Center. Co-author of “The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” “America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States” and “Garbage In, Garbage Out: Face Recognition on Flawed Data.” (@ClareAngelyn)

Chris Adzima, senior information systems analyst at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which implemented Amazon’s Rekognition software. (@cjadzima)

Trisha Thadani, city hall reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. (@TrishaThadani)

From The Reading List

San Francisco Chronicle: “San Francisco bans city use of facial recognition surveillance technology” — “San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban city use of facial recognition surveillance technology Tuesday — a groundbreaking move that privacy advocates applaud, but others say may go too far.

“The legislation, written by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, also will force city departments to disclose what surveillance technology they currently use — and seek approval from the Board of Supervisors on any new technology that either collects or stores someone’s data.”

NPR: “San Francisco Approves Ban On Government’s Use Of Facial Recognition Technology” — “San Francisco has become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and city agencies. The city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 on a measure Tuesday, an action several other cities and states could follow.

“The ordinance also requires city departments to disclose any surveillance technologies they currently use or plan to use, and to spell out policies regarding them that the Board of Supervisors must then approve. The ban does not affect personal, business or federal government use of facial recognition technology.

“The ordinance will not become law until the Board of Supervisors ratifies the vote next week, a move that is widely expected.

“Governments have used the technology for several years, and the software can assist with efforts to find missing children, for example, or prevent driver’s license fraud.”

NBC News: “How facial recognition became a routine policing tool in America” — “The technology-driven revolution in policing is unfolding in big cities and small communities around the country, as more police departments purchase facial recognition software. The government ‘facial biometrics’ market — which includes federal, state and local law enforcement — is expected to soar from $136.9 million in 2018 to $375 million by 2025, according to an estimate by market research firm Grand View Research. Driven by artificial intelligence, facial recognition allows officers to submit images of people’s faces, taken in the field or lifted from photos or video, and instantaneously compare them to photos in government databases — mugshots, jail booking records, driver’s licenses.

“Unlike DNA evidence, which is costly and can take a laboratory days to produce, facial recognition requires little overhead once a system is installed. The relative ease of operation allows officers to make the technology part of their daily work. Rather than reserve it for serious or high-profile cases, they are using it to solve routine crimes and to quickly identify people they see as suspicious.”

Vox: “San Francisco’s facial recognition technology ban, explained” — “San Francisco is the first major city to ban local government agencies’ use of facial recognition, becoming a leader in regulating technology criticized for its potential to expand widespread government surveillance and reinforce police bias.

“The ‘Stop Secret Surveillance’ ordinance passed 8-1 in a vote by the city’s board of supervisors Tuesday. The ordinance will implement an all-out ban on San Francisco city agencies’ use of facial surveillance, which tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft currently sell to various US government agencies, including in Amazon’s case, US police departments and in Microsoft’s case, a US prison. These technologies can detect faces in images or live video streams and match those facial characteristics to someone’s identity in a database.

“Today, facial recognition technology is widely used by the Chinese government for Orwellian mass surveillance of ordinary citizens in public life — most alarmingly to target the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority in what’s been called ‘automated racism.’

“In the US, the tools are far less ubiquitous but becoming increasingly popular with law enforcement agencies. Dozens of local police departments across the US use the technology to match driver’s license pictures and mug shots to criminal databases. It’s also used (in some cases by private citizens, not police) to monitor crowds at events such as protests, shopping malls, and concerts to identify potential suspects in real time, which has caused alarm among civil liberties advocates, who say this use can have a chilling effect on free speech.”

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.