San Francisco could ban government agencies from using facial recognition technology

San Francisco could become the first city in the country to ban government agencies from using facial recognition technology.

The “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance” would prevent government agencies, including police, from using facial recognition in law enforcement. The bill passed unanimously in a committee vote on Monday and will move to the San Francisco board of supervisors for a final vote on 14 May.

The legislation is meant to address concerns about the accuracy of technology and put a stop to creeping surveillance culture, said supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the ordinance.

“We are all for good community policing but we don’t want to live in a police state,” Peskin added. “At the end of the day it’s not just about a flawed technology, it’s about the invasive surveillance of the public commons.”

A study from MIT and the University of Toronto found facial detection technology has trouble accurately identifying women and people of color. After Amazon began selling its Rekognition facial recognition technology to law enforcement, a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found it mistakenly matched 28 Congress members to mug shots. In April, artificial intelligence researchers and representatives from tech firms including Facebook, Microsoft and Google called on Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement agencies until “legislation and safeguards” could be put in place to prevent misuse and inaccuracies in the technology.

The new legislation would also strengthen existing oversight measures on surveillance, including a 2018 law requiring the San Francisco public transportation system Bart to outline how it surveils passengers.

The ordinance would apply to a wider range of technology, including automated license plate reading and gunshot-detection tools. And it would require city agencies to disclose their existing inventory of surveillance technology to the board for approval within 120 days. Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California said the legislation is a positive step towards slowing the rise of technologies that may infringe on the rights of communities of color and immigrant communities.

“Face surveillance won’t make us safer, but it will make us less free,” he said. “As a global leader in technology, it makes sense that San Francisco would understand face surveillance’s dangers and act to prevent its deployment. By drawing this line in the sand, San Francisco can show the world what real tech leadership means.”

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