San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Tech Amid Concerns of Racial Bias

San Francisco could become the first city in the US to ban the use of facial recognition technology. City supervisors passed legislation that will also require city departments to disclose any surveillance technology they currently use.

The ordinance was written by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and was unofficially passed by the Board of Supervisors 8-1 on May 14, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The ordinance would ban city departments from using facial recognition surveillance technology and force them to seek approval from the Board of Supervisors before implementing any technology that collects or stores an individual’s data.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted against the measure, while Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton were absent from the vote. The board is required to vote on the ordinance once more before it passes officially and is sent to Mayor London Breed to be signed into law. The ban will not apply to businesses, individuals, or federal agencies.

“As policymakers, we have a fundamental duty to safeguard the public from the abuse of rapidly-evolving technologies,” Peskin said in a statement to The North Star. “Tech innovation requires tech leadership by both the private and public sectors. We have good policing in San Francisco, but we do not want to live in a police state,” Peskin said. “By that same token, safety does not require that we live in a surveillance state. I believe this legislation strikes that balance.”

Those against the use of facial recognition technology noted that it does a good job at identifying white male faces, but has issues identifying people of color and women. In 2015, Google’s image-recognition system labeled African Americans as “gorillas,” Vox reported. Meanwhile, in 2018, Amazon’s Rekognition system incorrectly matched 28 Congress members to criminal mugshots.

A recent report from the AI Now Institute highlighted issues affecting facial recognition technology, including a lack of diversity in the tech industry. The report also noted that AI systems, which include facial recognition technology, “function as systems of discrimination: they are classification technologies that differentiate, rank, and categorize.”

“Both within the spaces where AI is being created, and in the logic of how AI systems are designed, the costs of bias, harassment, and discrimination are borne by the same people: gender minorities, people of color, and other under-represented groups,” the report stated. “Similarly, the benefits of such systems, from profit to efficiency, accrue primarily to those already in positions of power, who again tend to be white, educated, and male.” Misidentifying those groups could also result in people being wrongly or disproportionately questioned and arrested.

The ban on facial recognition technology did have some detractors. Supervisor Stefani expressed concern that the ban would limit the city’s law enforcement from having a potentially useful crime-solving tool, the Chronicle reported. “We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today,” Joel Engardio, the vice president of Stop Crime SF, said in a statement to the Chronicle. “But the technology will improve and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly and with greater accuracy. We should keep the door open for that possibility.”

A similar ban is being considered by the Oakland City Council and city officials in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.