San Francisco won the battle, but the war on facial-recognition has just begun

episode 131 14facialrecognition 01 articlelarge

San Francisco has become the first city in America to ban facial recognition. Well, kind of.

In fact, the ban — voted on this week by the city’s Board of Supervisors — bars only the use of facial recognition by city agencies, such as the police department. It doesn’t affect the use of facial recognition technology in locations like airports or ports, for example, or from private applications orchestrated by private companies. Oh yes, and because the San Francisco police department doesn’t currently use facial recognition technology, this ruling bans something that wasn’t actually being used. While the department tested the technology on booking photos between 2013 and 2017, it has not implemented this use-case on a permanent basis.

So is this just meaningless legislation, something that sounds and looks good on paper, but ultimately achieves nothing? Not at all. It’s a proactive move that will hopefully lead to others following in its footsteps. As I wrote recently, facial recognition has grown in its application very, very quickly. Technology which seemed like science fiction within the span of many of our lives is now everywhere. Heck, today’s top-selling smartphone models use facial recognition as a way of granting us access to our devices. (As noted, this won’t be affected by the new laws, coming into practice on July 1.)

A display showing a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology ConferenceMuch of the adoption (and a great deal of the money) in facial recognition comes from security applications. This is something we’re seeing a great deal of today in places like China, where the state media frequently talks up its abilities to identify (and, in turn, take action against) individual criminals within crowds of thousands of others. Thanks to advances in surveillance technology, more and more facial recognition tools are used for what is called live facial recognition (LFR), meaning the automated real-time “matching” of individuals with a curated “watchlist” in video footage.

could ai based surveillance predict crime before it happens us technology artificial intelligence
A display showing a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

There are really two problems with this application. The first is the question of accuracy. Despite advances in facial recognition technology, there is still concern about error and bias. The dangers of algorithmic bias have rightly been flagged by many concerned voices — and facial recognition is one more area where this risk of bias has proven problematic, particularly when it comes to people of color.

While it differs according to both the algorithm and the training data, many facial recognition tools have been shown to be less effective at recognizing individuals with darker skin. Misrecognition by a facial recognition algorithm could falsely flag law-abiding black citizens as wrongdoers, who must either identify themselves or potentially even face wrongful arrest. Although being identified by a facial recognition system is not foolproof “evidence” in itself, reliance on these tools by law enforcement could still cause harm to communities who already have cause to feel marginalized.

Do we want facial recognition at all?

Over time, some of these technical problems can and will be solved. More inclusive datasets could be created with greater diversity and accuracy levels. But even if these tools were to be entirely effective, there are still reasons why we might be skeptical of their use. You don’t need to be a privacy absolutist to believe that citizens should be able to conduct their lives without being constantly monitored. Like large scale phone surveillance, mass facial recognition means surveilling everyone — regardless of what they may or may not have done.

Facial recognition software showing faces and the amount of times they've appeared.
David McNew/Getty Images

Proving that facial recognition is sufficiently beneficial to rule out the loss of liberty and privacy that it entails is something that is nowhere near having been proven, let alone agreed upon. In short, if one of the goals of government bodies should be to engender trust in police, then tools like facial recognition may not be the best way to achieve it — regardless of whether it’s free from bias or not.

There are two ways to regulate. One is to wait until something bad happens and then figure out, retroactively, how to put a stop to it and punish the wrongdoers. The other is to stop it before it reaches that point. San Francisco is choosing the latter. Whether this ruling is revised at a later date, when more inclusive facial recognition systems have been developed and publicly demonstrated, remains to be seen. But it’s setting an example which could lead to other cities and states deciding on similar rules. After all, if the denizens of tech hotbed San Francisco are worried about facial recognition technology, then what are the odds that plenty of citizens elsewhere are as well?

Tech companies talk about the imperative of moving fast and breaking things. Laws, which move slowly and try to fix them, can often lag hopelessly behind. This is one very welcome exception to the rule.

Emerging Tech

How facial recognition is changing life as we know it – for better or worse

From the police to ad agencies, everyone is investing in state-of-the-art facial recognition technology. What does all of this mean for ordinary citizens? Digital Trends took a look.

Whether you want to edit, sign, or append, PDFs, these are the best PDF editors

While there are plenty of PDF editor options online, finding a solution with the tools you need can be tough. Here are the best PDF editors for your editing needs, no matter your budget or operating system.

The 15 best tech jobs boast top salaries, high satisfaction, lots of openings

Late spring weather isn’t the only thing heating up. The technology sector offers some of the hottest jobs in the country, and talent and experience are in high demand. May is blooming with thousands of high-paying positions all over the…
Social Media

Update WhatsApp! Sophisticated attack installs spyware with just a call

A WhatsApp vulnerability left Android and iOS devices open to attack from sophisticated surveillance software that could be installed simply by calling the targeted person through the app.
Emerging Tech

Japan’s latest bullet train begins trial runs that will see it reach 248 mph

Japan’s has started testing its next-generation bullet train. Trial runs of the Alfa-X will see the vehicle reach speeds of 248 mph, while new anti-quake technology will make it the safest bullet train yet.
Emerging Tech

Google wants to map the world's air quality. Here's how.

For the past several years, a growing number of Google’s Street View cars have been doing more than just taking photos. They’ve also been measuring air quality. Here's why that's so important.

Volkswagen is launching a full range of EVs, but it doesn’t want to be Tesla

Volkswagen is preparing to release the 2020 ID.3 - an electric, Golf-sized model developed for Europe. It sheds insight into the brand's future EVs, including ones built and sold in the United States.
Emerging Tech

Soaring on air currents like birds could let drones fly for significantly longer

Birds are sometimes able to glide by catching rising air currents, known as thermals. This energy-saving technique could also be used by drones to allow them to remain airborne longer.
Emerging Tech

Get ready to waste your day with this creepily accurate text-generating A.I.

Remember the text-generating A.I. created by research lab OpenA.I. that was supposedly too dangerous to release to the public? Well, someone just released a version of it. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

Think your kid might have an ear infection? This app can confirm it

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new A.I.-powered smartphone app that’s able to listen for ear infections with a high level of accuracy. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX calls off Starlink launch just 15 minutes before liftoff

High winds above Cape Canaveral on Wednesday night forced SpaceX to postpone the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket in a mission that would have marked the first major deployment of the company’s Starlink internet satellites.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX scraps second effort to launch 60 Starlink satellites

Wednesday's planned SpaceX launch of 60 Starlink satellites was pushed back due to bad weather. Thursday's launch has also been postponed, so the company said it will try again next week.
Emerging Tech

UV-activated superglue could literally help to heal broken hearts

Scientists at China's Zhejiang University have developed a UV-activated adhesive glue that is capable of efficiently healing damage to organs, including the heart. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

USC’s penny-sized robotic bee is the most sci-fi thing you’ll see all week

Engineers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have built a bee-inspired robot that weighs just 95 grams and is smaller than a penny. Check it out in action here.