San Francisco Could Be The First US City To Ban Police From Using Facial Recognition, But Is It Too Extreme?

San Francisco is poised to be the first US city to ban police from using facial recognition.Critics suggest that San Francisco's ban on FR is too extreme to become a model. Image from Southbank Centre | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The public dialogue that puts facial recognition and the technology that enables it into question has had a significant effect on lawmakers, many of whom have been very vocal on the risks that come with the said technology. And San Francisco, being one of the technology capitals of the world, is set to become the first U.S. city to ban authorities from using facial recognition technology for law enforcement.

Many of the government agencies in the U.S., especially the law enforcement agency (LEA), have since been criticized for using facial recognition technology against Americans. In the same manner, civil rights groups and advocates have slammed Amazon for selling its own version of the technology called Rekognition to law enforcement organizations amidst the warning of the scientific community of the risks that come with it.

Critics have since argued that without proper regulation of the technology, it could violate the privacy of Americans. One examples critics have mentioned is that a civilian who has never been arrested before could potentially be part of a police line-up without their consent or knowledge. They worry that the technology will limit people’s ability to move around without the fear of being identified and tracked.

Different private establishments and stores have already used the technology. There is a software that can guess a person’s age, gender, or mood as they walk by to show them targeted ads inside as they do their shopping.

Because of the red flags raised by different sectors against the use of facial recognition technology, San Francisco is considering to ban it from being used by the police and other city government agencies against their people. The ban could potentially ignite similar legislation from other cities, states, and even the federal government.

In the said ban, the California Legislature is considering a proposal to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology on body cameras worn by the police. This is a step up from the already existing senatorial bipartisan bill that exempts police applications but set limits on how private businesses can use the technology.

The bipartisan move, known as the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act of 2019, was introduced by US Senators Roy Blunt and Brian Schatz in a bid to protect people’s facial recognition data and make it much harder for the data to be sold, now that information is treated as currency.

“Our faces are our identities. They’re personal. So the responsibility is on companies to ask people for their permission before they track and analyze their face,” Senator Schatz, ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, said.

“Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their data is being collected and used, including data collected through facial recognition technology,” said Senator Blunt. “That’s why we need guardrails to ensure that, as the technology continues to develop, it is implemented responsibly. This bill increases transparency and consumer choice by requiring individuals to give informed consent before commercial entities can collect and share data gathered through FR.”

The two senators, through their proposed bill, also want to address the reported underlying bias in FR technologies. In the first few months of the year, Z6 Mag has reported on how self-driving cars are more likely to run over a black person and that Amazon’s facial recognition technology is less likely to mismatch faces of women and black people. In response, Blunt and Schatz wanted all facial recognition technologies to undergo third-party testing prior to implementation to address accuracy and bias issues.

Other states and cities are also considering a ban on facial recognition. A similar legislation is also pending in Oakland California and another was proposed in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Commentators said that the ban in the “most technologically advanced city in our country” which is San Francisco is a necessary warning to other police departments. However, Daniel Castro, Vice President of the industry-backed Information technology and Innovation Foundation, expressed his concern in the ban saying that it is too extreme to be used as a model for other cities and states.

“It might find success in San Francisco, but I will be surprised if it finds success in a lot of other cities,” he said.

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