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Cities Ban Government Use of Facial Recognition

Three American cities have now banned the use of facial recognition technology in local government amid concerns it's inaccurate and biased.

A security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco.
(AP/ Eric Risberg)
Oakland, Calif., last week became the third city in America to ban the use of facial recognition technology in local government, following prohibitions enacted earlier this year in San Francisco and Somerville, Mass. Berkeley, Calif., is also weighing a ban.

The Oakland City Council voted for the ban unanimously on the grounds that the software -- used by law enforcement elsewhere in the country -- is often inaccurate, especially when identifying people who aren’t white men. “Not only does the technology pose the risk that people will be misidentified as wanted criminals,” says Council President Rebecca Kaplan, “but it’s disproportionately black people and women who are misidentified.”

Studies support Kaplan’s claims. Last year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University found both “skin-type and gender biases” in facial recognition programs used by major technology companies. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the software used by Amazon “incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.”

Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick warned against a complete ban in a memo, saying her department staff believed “that Oakland’s current surveillance technology provides adequate thresholds for reviewing any possible future requests to test or purchase [facial recognition technology].”

But Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission, says the public is increasingly troubled by the “creepy” cumulative effect of government surveillance. He thinks the proliferation of facial recognition could "obliterate the First Amendment" and result in “millions if not billions of cameras” in the public square. "It'll be super easy to find out that I'm going to a certain church,” he says, “or to a doctor that only specializes in cancer, or to an abortion clinic.”

These concerns are not merely speculative. Oakland’s ban comes amid fallout from reporting by The Washington Post that federal investigators have been scanning the photos of millions of Americans in state driver’s license databases without the permission of those citizens. Facial recognition is already central to the Chinese government’s current ethnic profiling of Muslims.

It's these types of usages that have led many advocates to argue for a federal ban. “Imagine if we could go back in time and prevent governments around the world from ever building nuclear or biological weapons,” Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, said in a statement this month. “That’s the moment in history we’re in right now with facial recognition…. This surveillance technology poses such a profound threat to the future of human society and basic liberty that its dangers far outweigh any potential benefits. We don’t need to regulate it, we need to ban it entirely.”

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