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San Francisco Poised to Make History With Law Banning Use of Facial Recognition Technology

"The harms of unchecked surveillance are very real and they often impact immigrant and communities of color disproportionately."

San Francisco could become the first city to ban the use of facial recigntion technology by city agencies. (Photo: Steffi Loos/Getty Images)

Civil liberties advocates on Monday eagerly awaited the results of a vote by San Francisco officials on the city's use of facial recognition technology—hoping the city's Board of Supervisors would vote to ban the surveillance tool.

The board is set to vote Tuesday on the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, a law that advocates say would make history and potentially encourage other cities to ban the use of facial recognition technology, which is being used increasingly by police and private companies.

Since San Francisco is the "most technologically advanced city in our country," privacy expert Alvaro Bedoya told the Associated Press, the city's rejection of cameras which can capture anyone's image for use by the police or city agencies could send a strong message to other government officials.

"The people of San Francisco and their elected representatives deserve an open and democratic process that answers critical questions before City departments acquire or use surveillance technology."                                        —Nathan Sheard, Electronic Frontier Foundation

The technology is also unpopular with the public. A majority of respondents in a 2018 poll by the Brookings Institution said they were opposed to facial recognition being used in stores, airports, and stadiums. Last November, 60 percent of San Francisco voters approved a measure to strengthen data privacy protections in the city.

"Face recognition is one of those technologies that people get how creepy it is," Bedoya, director of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology, told the AP. "There's something about this technology that really sets the hairs on the back of people's heads up."

Under the proposed ordinance, San Francisco police and city agencies would be barred from using the technology. The rule would also put in place strict oversight of all surveillance technology used by the city, including cameras and license plate readers. City departments would be required to alert the public before attempting to use any new surveillance technology, and to obtain board approval before introducing the tools.

The measure is being considered amidst rapid advances by the tech industry as it develops the technology, making it easier for law enforcement to identify faces in a crowd and use images of people taken by surveillance cameras to scan databases.

"Without regulations barring law enforcement from accessing driver's license databases, people who have never been arrested could be part of virtual police line-ups without their knowledge," the AP reported.

In fact, according to a 2016 study by the Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology, "roughly one out of every two American adults (48 percent) has had their photo enrolled in a criminal face recognition network."

That report also found that because black communities disproportionately come into contact with police, "African Americans will likely be overrepresented in mug shot-based face recognition databases."

"Law enforcement's discriminatory and unaccountable use of surveillance technologies can put people's lives at risk," wrote Nathan Sheard at Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has spoken out in support of the ordinance. "The people of San Francisco and their elected representatives deserve an open and democratic process that answers critical questions before City departments acquire or use surveillance technology."

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security said last month that it aims to subject 97 percent of airline passengers to surveillance by facial recognition technology by 2023.

"Right now, there is a pressing need to act," Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, told the San Francisco Examiner. "The harms of unchecked surveillance are very real and they often impact immigrant and communities of color disproportionately."

San Francisco's proposed ordinance would impose controls only on city agencies—not San Francisco International Airport or private companies which may seek to use the technology to surveill customers—but proponents say the city's embrace of restrictions could urge other local governments to adopt their own measures protecting residents from surveillance.

"With this law," Cagle said in a statement, "San Francisco can demonstrate real tech leadership by giving our communities a seat at the table, and the power to create safeguards to prevent misuse."

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