17.05.19

San Francisco bans facial recognition

Facial Recognition

In a world first, San Francisco has become the first city to ban use of facial recognition technology for local law enforcement, with any future kinds of surveillance technology to require approval from city administrators.

Facial recognition technology has been long associated with the nightmarish dystopia of George Orwell’s bestselling book 1984 and entered the mainstream as a security and surveillance tool that has seen successive or frightening use (depending on who you ask).

With the Trump administration taking a firm, anti-censorship stance on free speech and privacy rights, San Francisco has stepped up to oppose the usage of facial recognition technology as being “incompatible with a healthy democracy “ in the words of Matt Cagle, American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina.

Cagle added “residents deserve a voice in decisions about high-tech surveillance. We applaud the city for listening to the community and leading the way forward with this crucial legislation. Other cities should take note and set up similar safeguards to protect people's safety and civil rights."

The vote was passed 8-1 by San Francisco’s supervisors, with the measure expected to be passed into law after a second vote sometime next week.

The announcement comes after a report by campaign group Big Brother Watch in the UK suggesting a ‘staggering’ number of innocent people were being flagged as suspects.  

A freedom of information request revealed that facial recognition technology used by  UK Metropolitan Police at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 2016 and 2017, as well as a Remembrance Sunday event incorrectly flagged 102 people as potential suspects, leading to a total of 0 arrests.

The NYPD was also accused of ‘abusing’ facial recognition technology by using celebrity images to find suspects that look like them according to a report by Georgetown Law Centre on Privacy and Technology, with the NYPD allegedly editing existing images and plugging them into facial recognition technology to see if a match would be returned.  

Joel Engardio, vice president of Stop Crime San Francisco argued that the technology is inaccurate but should not be outrightly banned.

Engardio said “"We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today. But the technology will improve, and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly. We should keep the door open for that possibility."

Could facial recognition save lives? Find out more in our report here