The American city of San Francisco approved ordinance on 14 May that barred the police department and other city agencies from using facial recognition technology on residents in a groundbreaking move that privacy advocates support but critics think goes too far.
The legislation, which was written by city Supervisor Aaron Peskin and passed by a vote of eight to one by the city’s Board of Supervisors, will also compel city departments to disclose the surveillance technology that they are currently using and to seek approval from the board for any new technology that collects or stores data on individuals.
As they are federally regulated, the city’s airport and port will be exempt from the ban. According to local newspaper San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s police department estimated that it would take between two and four full-time employees to fully comply with the new ordinance. The department said that it does not currently employ any facial recognition technology in its work.
Supervisor Catherine Stefani cast the dissenting vote, reportedly saying that she was “was concerned about how a complete ban on facial recognition could prevent the city’s law enforcement from having access to a potentially useful crime-solving tool”.
Stefani was also worried that forcing departments to disclose surveillance technology and seek board approval for anything new could “bog them down” with extra work. While this “does not undermine” what she deemed a “very well-intentioned piece of legislation”, Stefani added, she is “not yet convinced” and still has “many outstanding questions”.
In a statement published the same day, local advocacy group Stop Crime SF said it believed a moratorium (i.e. suspension or freeze) on facial recognition technology would have been more appropriate than an outright ban.
It said that it agreed that there are “problems” with the technology and that it “should not be used today” but noted that it “will improve and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly and with greater accuracy”.
The door should be kept open for that possibility, the group’s vice president, Joel Engardio, said, especially when facial recognition can be used to “help locate missing children, people with dementia and fight sex trafficking”.
Although the ban is the first-of-its-kind, San Francisco isn’t alone in considering this type of legislation as several other cities are considering barring the use of facial recognition, including Oakland and Berkeley in California, and Somerville in Massachusetts.