On Tuesday, San Francisco banned law enforcement from using facial technology recognition on its residents. This represents the first ever ban of such kind in the country.
This ordinance passed by an eight to one vote. What’s more, law and order will now have to reveal which surveillance technology they actually use, like cell-site simulators—that track the movement of the residents—as well as license plate readers, over time. Moreover, facial recognition is considered harmful to civil liberties; therefore, it should be banned altogether.
The executive director of the privacy advocacy group Secure Justice, Brian Hofer, stated that everything about facial surveillance technology has a significant error rate, making the residents’ civil liberties and rights jeopardized. Furthermore, Hofer believes that once this technology becomes entirely accurate, it could track our daily routines and disrupt our lives.
ACLU of Northern California, with several other groups, has joined together to support the bill. Aaron Peskin, the Supervisor, introduced this issue. San Francisco’s ban may be the first, but it won’t be the last. There are several other cities which take into consideration the banns of facial recognition, including Berkeley and Oakland in California, Massachusetts and Somerville.
There is quite a significant backlash opposing the private advocates’ technology, as well as the tech companies and lawmakers. Let’s take Microsoft as an example. This company made the request for the federal government to regulate facial recognition before this gets even more widespread, in July last year. There have been many tech companies which supply the technology to law enforcement, shopping centres and airports, like Amazon, for instance.
A privacy law advocate at the Center for Democracy and Technology, Mana Azarmi, stated that the San Francisco ban had sent a signal to law enforcement across the country that they have to convince the public about using this technology in a rights respecting manner, as well as addressing the malfunctions, in order to use facial recognition. However, the San Francisco Police Department denied they use such technology.
Is Facial Recognition Technology a Good or Bad Solution?
The San Francisco Police Department made the official statement, in which they stated that the mission they have is to balance the need to protect civil liberties and rights, which includes free expression and privacy. They added that even though they were happy to notice some of the concerns they had were addressed in the legislation, but until this policy is tested in practice, the full impact on department operations remains unclear.
Tony Montoya, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, stated that this union doesn’t have any issues with the ban outright, but shares some concerns about the impact this may have on the investigation since it has been a valuable tool. He also added that there might be consequences which could result in increased criminal activity. Montaya claims that the police isn’t making arrests based merely on electronic tools without an extensive investigation of the suspects, first and foremost.
The Consequences of the Facial Recognition Ban
After forbidding the use of facial recognition tools, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Adam Scott Wandt, shared his concern about taking away a valuable safety method.
The police have legitimate reasons to use this technology, he added, at many public events which attract attention, such as significant sports events—the Super Bowl—or at the airports, where people enter the country. It’s a matter of national safety. Wandt believed that it’s essential that the governments be able to use this technology, but not without the respect of the residents’ constitutional rights.
He agrees with the concerns made by the civil liberties advocates of how large government entities actually keep the surveillance records and other data. The more they gather dust at the police evidence rooms, the more understanding they have of the citizens’ movement they have over time.
There are several cities in the state of California, which already have enacted laws which make transparency features for surveillance tools that are fairly similar to the ones in San Francisco. These laws require law enforcement to explain which technologies they use.
The requests to step up to explain to the public all about the surveillance technologies is all about building a bridge of trust between communities and the police departments, claims a grassroots advocacy organizer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Nathan Sheard. He also added that trust needs a transparent and clear process of how we will acquire surveillance tools.