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15 May 2019, 01:34 | Glen Norman
San Francisco Passes First Municipal Facial Recognition Tech Ban in US
San Francisco on Tuesday became the first city in the U.S.to ban the use of facial-recognition software by city agencies and the police, dealing a swift symbolic blow to a key technology rapidly being deployed by law enforcement nationwide.
The San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney's Office have both said that they now do not use facial recognition software; under the new ordinance they are unlikely to be able to do so without extensive public debate.
The ban was part of broader legislation setting use and auditing policy for surveillance systems, creating high hurdles and requiring board approval for any city agencies.
The vote was passed by San Francisco's supervisors 8-1, with two absentees.
"We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today". However, the ordinance carves out an exception for federally controlled facilities at San Francisco International Airport and the Port of San Francisco.
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The ordinance also states that the city will need to report to the Board of Supervisors each year on whether surveillance equipment and services are being used in the ways for which they were approved, and include details like what data was kept, shared or erased. It allows continued use of surveillance tools like security cameras; the district attorney or sheriff can make an appeal to use certain restricted technology in exceptional circumstances as well.
"In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China - a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology", he said.
The Board of Supervisors is the legislative body of the City and County of San Francisco.
The decision sits in marked contrast to the approach taken in places like China where the extensive use of such technology has led to concerns that the country is embarking on the kind of constant surveillance of citizens that was only imagined in dystopian sci-fi novels like 1984 or Black Mirror. He also expects that the rule will prompt other cities to follow suit.
That is not to say everybody is behind San Francisco's plan.
"We applaud the city for listening to the community, and leading the way forward with this crucial legislation".
But Dave Maas, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offered a partial list of police departments that he said used the technology, including Las Vegas; San Diego; New York City; Boston; Detroit; Durham, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida; and San Jose, California. Oakland is also now considering whether to ban the use of facial-recognition technology. It said advanced technology has made it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.
Some locals have been vocally opposed to the surveillance ordinance, including several groups of residents.
After the ordinance passed, Stop Crime SF vice president Joel Engardio said that overall the legislation is "necessary and helpful" though it "could have been better".
Similar legislation is under consideration in nearby Oakland, and Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem introduced a bill that would impose a moratorium on facial recognition software in the state until the technology improves.
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Both in the private and public sphere there has been pushback against use of the technology.
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