San Francisco could be the first city in the U.S. to ban facial recognition

San Francisco is one of the tech capitals of America, but that doesn’t mean that every kind of technology is welcome there. This week, a San Francisco lawmaker introduced legislation that could see San Fran become the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology.

The bill, referred to as the “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance,” argues that the downsides of facial recognition far outstrip its benefits. It also asserts that the “technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring.”

The accusations of exacerbating “racial injustice” refer to some of the problematic aspects of facial recognition, particularly when it comes to misidentifying African-Americans and other people of color. The usage of facial recognition by law enforcement has been gradually ramping up, as most notably seen by the use of Rekognition, facial detection software developed by Amazon, which is being employed by law enforcement groups.

“We know that facial recognition technology, which has the biases of the people who developed it, disproportionately misidentifies people of color and women,” city Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordnance bill, told the San Francisco Examiner this week. “This is a fact.”

If the bill is passed into law, it would stop the purchase or use of similar facial recognition technology. The legislation is due to be heard in committee next month. It has already gained support from civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California.

The subject of biometrics and their potential intrusiveness in our lives is tricky territory. Investment in tools such as facial recognition software have greatly increased in the years since the 9/11 attack of 2001, with the idea that it could be used as a more proactive tool for rooting out possible criminal conduct. However, the topic of mass surveillance — not to mention the possibility of “false positives,” in which the wrong people are identified as potential criminals — is enough to leave plenty of people unsettled.

It will be interesting to see what happens next with this particular bill, and whether it inspires other cities in the U.S. to make similar legislative decisions.

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