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.

News

U.S. tech firms continue sales to Huawei despite Trump administration ban

U.S. chipmakers -- Intel, Micron, and others -- have quietly continued doing business with Huawei despite a ban on American sales to the Chinese telecom giant imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department in May.
Mobile

FedEx mistakenly rejects shipment of a Huawei phone to the U.S.

There has been confusion about what exactly the placement of Huawei on the U.S. Entity List means for private customers. Recently a tech writer who tried to ship a Huawei phone to the U.S. was surprised when the phone was returned to him.
Small Business

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

June may be coming to an end, but the bonanza of tech jobs just keeps coming. High-paying jobs abound at companies where people love to work. If you’re ready to make a change, this is a great time to look for something more fulfilling…
Social Media

A new Senate bill would fundamentally change the internet as we know it

A new bill in the U.S. Senate could cause the internet as we know it to cease to exist by holding major tech companies like Facebook or YouTube liable for anything posted on their platforms. 
Emerging Tech

SpaceX is on a hiring spree for its Starlink global internet project

After a string of delays, SpaceX's Starlink project was finally launched last month. Now an analysis of data from SpaceX's job listings shows the company is on a hiring tear, advertising for more and more positions for the project.
Emerging Tech

Ready to roll: Mars 2020 rover fitted with wheels ahead of mission next year

The Mars 2020 rover is getting ready for its trip to the red planet next year. The latest step in readying the rover is installing its wheels and suspension system, which engineers at NASA have been doing this month.
Emerging Tech

Want to work in the stars? Here are six future space jobs you could hold

Ever dreamed of leaving Earth to work in the stars? Here's a list of job titles that might sound like science fiction now, but almost certainly won’t a decade or two in the future.
Emerging Tech

You can help search for aliens with an open access release of SETI data

The Breakthrough Initiatives, a program to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, recently analyzed its first three years of radio telescope data. And all of the data collected is being made publicly available in an open data archive.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Illuminated keyboards and a retro gaming console

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

The U.K.’s biggest (and only) asteroid mining company has designs on our skies

Is the founder and CEO of the U.K.'s Asteroid Mining Corporation going to be among the first people to strike it rich in space, or is he just chasing an ambitious but doomed mirage?
Emerging Tech

Tiny galaxy has huge black hole at its center, gives clues to galactic evolution

A Hubble image shows a tiny galaxy which could hold the clue to unraveling a longstanding question about the evolution of galaxies. Despite its small size, it hosts a feature found in much larger galaxies -- a supermassive black hole.
Emerging Tech

Dark matter galaxy crashed into the Milky Way, causing the ripples in its disk

New research suggests hundreds of million of years ago, the Milky Way collided with Antlia 2, a nearby dwarf galaxy dominated by dark matter. The collision caused ripples in the disk of gas around the Milky Way which we still observe today.
Emerging Tech

Uranus’ rings shine brightly but hold a puzzle for astronomers

New images reveal the rings around Uranus, which are almost invisible to most telescopes. But there's a strange puzzle about them -- why they don't contain any small dust-sized particles.
Emerging Tech

U.S. Navy is working on making its fleet invisible to computerized surveillance

The U.S. Navy’s ever-innovative Office of Naval Research is working on a way to turn the United States military fleet invisible. Well, to cutting-edge image-recognition systems, at least.