San Francisco becomes first city to ban facial recognition technology

San Francisco becomes first city to ban facial recognition technology
© iStock

Tech-savvy San Francisco on Tuesday became the first city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by local law enforcement and other city agencies, signaling an intensifying backlash to the increasingly popular technology that is being implemented across the country with little regulation. 

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 8-1 in favor of an ordinance barring the city's government from using facial recognition technology while more broadly implementing oversight measures regulating government use of other surveillance technology such as body cameras and license plate readers. There will be a second vote on the bill, though it is largely considered a formality.

ADVERTISEMENT

The bill, dubbed the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, is the first of its kind to gain approval in the U.S. Similar bans are pending in Oakland, Calif., and Somerville, Mass. Other cities may follow suit after San Francisco's ban on facial recognition tech goes into place. 

The legislation will apply only to the San Francisco government, meaning it does not affect private businesses that opt to use the technology — for instance, store owners who want to learn more about their customers — or state or federal law enforcement working within San Francisco. It also does not apply to the San Francisco International Airport, where most facial recognition technology is under the purview of the federal government.

"The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring,” the ordinance adopted on Tuesday reads. 

The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance also requires public input and approval from the board of supervisors before agencies implement surveillance technology such as body cameras, biometrics technology, license plate readers and predictive policing software.

Other cities in California have adopted similar oversight provisions, but San Francisco is the first to make it illegal for government agencies to "obtain, retain, access or use" facial recognition technology.

Facial recognition technology analyzes human faces for the purpose of identifying them.

Multiple leading technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, in recent months have released guidelines laying out their priorities for any national legislation regulating facial recognition technology. Both companies, as well as IBM, have faced scrutiny from researchers who say their technology misidentifies women and darker-skinned people at higher rates.

San Francisco legislators have said facial recognition technology violates residents' privacy and could result in racial discrimination as police officers use the technology to identify criminals. 

"We can have good security without a security state and we can have good policing without a police state," the lawmaker who introduced the bill, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, said last month.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have started to use facial recognition technology with more frequency over the past few years, despite pushback from civil liberties and civil rights groups that say it violates people's privacy and could be used to disproportionately target minorities. 

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, earlier this year introduced a first-of-its-kind bill that would regulate the commercial use of facial recognition technology. 

The bill would not address law enforcement's use of the sensitive technology, but it would require businesses to gain people's consent before using facial recognition in public places and before sharing any of their data with third parties.

San Francisco will now forbid the city's 53 departments from using facial recognition tech. Its police department tested the technology between 2013 and 2017 but now says it no longer uses it.   

"I think San Francisco has a responsibility to speak up on things that are affecting the entire globe, that are happening in our front yard," Peskin said earlier this month.