San Francisco just voted to ban facial-recognition technology.
The city that has for many come to symbolize the power of tech, both in all its terror and glory, took an important step on Tuesday to rein in some of that power. The city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 1 in a veto proof majority to approve a wide-ranging ordinance that broadly regulates surveillance technology and prohibits outright the local government’s use of facial-recognition tech for surveillance.
While this ban has not yet technically become law — the ordinance goes back before the Supervisors on May 21 and then Mayor London Breed must sign it — its backers are confident that, having passed this first hurdle, the ordinance’s success is essentially assured.
This is a big deal, and not just for San Francisco. Experts who spoke with Mashable explained that the passage of such a measure, even in a city painted in the popular consciousness with a broad progressive brush, means that other local and state governments aren’t far behind.
“I think a ban will send a very strong statement within the national conversation about the potential harms associated with [facial-recognition technology],” Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, explained over email. “It’s likely it would encourage other communities to slow down and carefully consider the role of FRT in their communities.”
As San Francisco goes, so goes California. As California goes, so goes the nation.
San Francisco’s ban on facial-recognition tech is not happening in a vacuum. While companies like Amazon sell Rekognition to the feds and pitch ICE, governments around the world have become enamored of the technology’s dark promise to track people “attending a protest, congregating outside a place of worship, or simply living their lives,” as the ACLU puts it.
“It infringes on people’s privacy and it heavily discriminates against some groups of people.”
We see this terrifying reality in the Xinjiang region of Western China, where the government has imprisoned over a million Uighurs in a surveillance-state hellscape. More broadly, a New York Times report from April exposes how the Chinese government is “using a vast, secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority.”
The details are, frankly, horrifying. “The facial recognition technology,” continued the Times, “which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review.”
It is naive to believe that geography or national borders will limit the spread of such pernicious technology. Ecuador, which has installed a network of Chinese-made surveillance cameras around the entire county, is proof of that. And lest you think the Land of the Free is immune to such overreach, companies that provide facial-recognition technology, such as Palantir and Amazon, are based in the United States.
On the ground in San Francisco
While the people of San Francisco at present needn’t personally fear a Chinese-style surveillance state, the use of facial-recognition tech by law enforcement does represent a demonstrable threat to civil liberties.
Such technology has higher error rates for people of color and women, and, as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation makes clear, this has the effect of “[exacerbating] historical biases born of, and contributing to, over-policing in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.”
Professor Schoenebeck agrees. “It can be hard to anticipate how technology will be used,” she wrote, “but in the case of FRT, we already know that it infringes on people’s privacy and it heavily discriminates against some groups of people.”
So, how is this ban going to make things better?
“The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance would require City Departments to acquire Board approval before using or acquiring spy tech, after notice to the public and an opportunity to be heard,” reads an EFF blog post detailing the effort. “If the Board approved a new surveillance technology, the Board would have to ensure the adequacy of privacy policies to protect the public.”
“Each time we adopt a new technology we need to think about the unintended consequences of its use.”
Nash Sheard, the EFF’s grassroots advocacy organizer, explained over email that this ordinance will help to restore trust and accountability in the city’s government and police.
Specifically, city agencies will no longer be permitted to directly employ facial-recognition tech to target, track, or surveil its own citizens. And, if local officials decide to contract with a private company that uses the tech, that use will be subject to public oversight.
“Technology has the ability to create better transparency and to help us through our decision making process,” the EFF’s Sheard observed over the phone, “but each time we adopt a new technology we need to think about the unintended consequences of its use.”
Adam Harvey, a facial-recognition expert and the artist behind CV Dazzle (among many other things), explained over email that regulation backed by law is our best bet at keeping the potential dangers of facial-recognition tech at bay. However, he cautioned that the effort needs to be guided by those who best understand the threat.
“[Ultimately] the solution is a legislative one,” he wrote, “but without technologists stepping in to voice their concerns, create provocations, or alternative technologies, the debate on face-recognition technologies will continue to be steered by lobbyists and undemocratic organizations with little to no regard for civil rights.”
San Francisco, a city teeming with technologists and activists, appears up to the task of setting the national agenda on regulating facial-recognition tech. We should all hope it succeeds.