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San Francisco bans police use of facial recognition technology

Written by Wed 15 May 2019

The Californian city is the first in the US to outlaw the technology

San Francisco officials have voted to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments.

The decision by the legislative Board of Supervisors makes the Californian city the first in the US to outlaw a rapidly developing technology which has alarmed privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The ban is part of broader legislation that requires city departments to establish usage policies and obtain board approval for surveillance technology they want to purchase, or are using at present.

Several other local governments require departments to disclose and seek approval for surveillance technology.

City supervisor Aaron Peskin, who championed the legislation, said: “This is really about saying: ‘We can have security without being a security state. We can have good policing without being a police state.’

“And part of that is building trust with the community based on good community information, not on Big Brother technology.”

The ban applies to San Francisco police and other municipal departments. It does not affect the use of the technology by the federal government at airports and ports, nor does it limit personal or business use.

The San Francisco board did not spend time debating the outright ban on facial recognition technology, focusing instead on the possible burdens placed on police, the transit system and other city agencies which need to maintain public safety.

“I worry about politicising these decisions,” said supervisor Catherine Stefani, a former prosecutor who was the sole “no” vote.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC, issued a statement chiding San Francisco for considering the facial recognition ban.

It said advanced technology makes it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.

‘Risk of becoming Cuba’

Daniel Castro, the foundation’s vice president, said critics were silly to compare surveillance usage in the US with China, given that one country has strong constitutional protections and the other does not.

He said: “In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China – a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology.”

Mr Peskin said it is unclear how many San Francisco departments are using surveillance and for what purposes.

There are valid reasons for licence-plate readers, body cameras, and security cameras, he said, but the public should know how the tools are being used, or if they are being abused.

San Francisco’s police department stopped testing face ID technology in 2017.

Privacy advocates have clashed with public safety proponents at several heated hearings in San Francisco – a city teeming with tech innovation and the home of Twitter, Airbnb and Uber.

Those who support the ban say the technology is flawed and a serious threat to civil liberties, especially in a city that cherishes public protest and privacy.

They worry people will one day not be able to go to a shopping mall, the park or a school without being identified and tracked.

However, critics say police need all the help they can get, especially in a city with high-profile events and high rates of property crime.

Meredith Serra, a member of a resident public safety group Stop Crime SF, said the fact that people expect privacy in public space is unreasonable given the proliferation of mobile phones and surveillance cameras.

She said at a hearing: “To me, the ordinance seems to be a costly additional layer of bureaucracy that really does nothing to improve the safety of our citizens.”

The city of Oakland is considering similar legislation.

Written by Wed 15 May 2019


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