San Francisco the First U.S. City to Ban Facial Recognition Technology
By Trisha Thadani
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.
"This is really about saying we can have security without being a security state. We can have good policing without being a police state," Peskin said at Tuesday's board meeting. "Part of that is building trust with the community."
The ordinance passed the board 8-1, with Supervisor Catherine Stefani the dissenter. Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton were absent. The board must vote on the ordinance one more time before it officially passes and moves to Mayor London Breed for a signature.
Stefani said she was concerned about how a complete ban on facial recognition could prevent the city's law enforcement from having access to a potentially useful crime-solving tool. She also worried that forcing departments to disclose all their surveillance technology -- and requiring them to seekboard approval on anything new -- could bog them down with extra work.
"I am not yet convinced, and I still have many outstanding questions," she said. But "that does not undermine what I think is a very well-intentioned piece of legislation."
The San Francisco Police Department estimated it would take between two and four full-time employees to comply with the new ordinance. And even though the department says it does not currently use facial recognition technology, it may no longer acquire it in the future.
The airport and port would be exempt from the ban, as they are federally regulated.
Local advocacy group Stop Crime SF said the city should have considered a moratorium on the technology, rather than an outright ban.
"We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today," Joel Engardio, the group's vice president said in a statement. "But the technology will improve and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly and with greater accuracy. We should keep the door open for that possibility."
While facial recognition is becoming increasingly common, it is still expensive and has been blamed for major inaccuracies, particularly when identifying minorities. Those who support the ban say it is important for the city to rein in the emerging technology, which is largely unregulated in the United States.
San Francisco is not the only city that has considered a ban. The Oakland City Council may vote on a similar measure later this year, while city officials in Somerville, Mass., recently began discussing a similar ban.
"With all the changes in tech that we may not understand today, it is important to bring its use to light, while balancing the need for public safety," Supervisor Ahsha Safai said.
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