Skip to main content

San Francisco Is Voting Today to Ban the City's Use of Facial Recognition Technology

The vote comes amid concerns that the technology violates civil liberties and is subject to racial biases.
A 3-D facial-recognition program is demonstrated during the Biometrics 2004 exhibition and conference.

A 3-D facial recognition program is demonstrated during the Biometrics 2004 exhibition and conference.

A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee will vote today to determine whether or not the city will become the first in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology.

The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, first introduced by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin in January, argues that 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," according to the Mercury News.

If enacted, the ordinance would require that any technology that could be used by city departments for surveillance purposes—including license plate and toll readers, closed-circuit cameras, body cams, biometrics technology, and software for forecasting criminal activity—must receive both a public input period and supervisor approval before it could be implemented.

While other areas of California have already enacted similar rules to regulate the purchase of surveillance technology, including Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Santa Clara County, the San Francisco ordinance is the first to specifically target facial recognition software. Oakland might not be far behind: The city's public safety committee will reportedly be considering a proposal to ban facial recognition in late May.

San Francisco's law-enforcement agencies consulted with other city departments and watchdog groups in suggesting amendments to the proposed ordinance, but ultimately supported efforts to safeguard against the use of facial recognition software.

"(Our) mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression," David Stevenson, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, told the Mercury News. "We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors, and businesses of San Francisco."

Nancy Crowley, the spokeswoman for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, said her department does not typically use facial recognition but will "comply with the requirements that impact our work."

The San Francisco vote comes amid a fresh wave of concern over the potential of facial recognition software to infringe upon civil liberties. In January, Facebook caught flak after critics began to wonder if the popular "10-year challenge"—in which users posted photos of themselves 10 years apart—was actually an elaborate ploy to harvest fresh biometric data for its facial recognition algorithm. In December of 2018, Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport partnered with Delta Air Lines to open the nation's first "biometric terminal," which uses a camera-based system to vet travelers' faces against a United States Customs and Border Protection-compiled database. While recent advances in surveillance technology promise increases in convenience and safety, studies have repeatedly shown that data that is culled algorithmically frequently has the racial bias of the wider world baked into it, leading to disproportionate policing and persecution for minorities that reinforces an already existing societal dynamic.

But even as social media platforms and transit hubs continue to pioneer the implementation of vast facial recognition apparatuses, some of the companies producing the technology itself have intoned about the need to proceed cautiously.

In a February blog post, Amazon—which produces Rekognition, the facial recognition software that has drawn widespread concern from artificial intelligence experts, as well as Amazon's own shareholders—said that, while it maintains that its software has never been used in an improper or discriminatory way, it supported "calls for an appropriate national legislative framework that protects individual civil rights and ensures that governments are transparent in their use of facial recognition technology."

Technology justice advocates who have been working on the issue say that they are optimistic that the San Francisco ordinance will pass. By voting to ban city departments from using potentially discriminatory facial recognition technology, the city could soon become a model for others across the Unites States whose local lawmakers and residents care about curbing police abuses and maintaining privacy for civilians simultaneously.