San Francisco passes Bay Area’s 1st ban on police use of facial recognition

Kavya Narendra Babu/Staff

Related Posts

Amid concerns around surveillance and privacy, San Francisco banned police use of facial recognition technology May 14 after the state Assembly’s Feb. 21 introduction of a similar ban.

Shortly after the introduction of the state bill, San Francisco’s May 14 policy made it the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies.

The proposed state bill is an effort to preserve civil rights and prevent potential misuses of the technology, according to the bill.

The use of facial recognition in law enforcement is a controversial subject. Some, including companies such as Gemalto, believe it presents an opportunity to improve public safety. To others such as Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, it presents potential for further abuse of marginalized communities, according to a May 9 press release from Ting.

The Berkeley Police Department does not currently have plans to implement facial recognition, according to BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White. White said Berkeley’s police force is “reluctant to rule it out of the toolbox until the tool is perfected,” but at the same time, the department “wants to be in line with what the community wants.”

Although the use of facial recognition has received heavy opposition, the technology has been applied for various uses. For example, it was used to identify the Annapolis Capital Gazette shooter and is currently used in U.S. airports.

Concerned about the technology’s potential for violating personal privacy, Ting drafted the statewide proposal to prevent various possible misuses of the tool, according to Ting’s press release. Facial recognition has historically misidentified people of color, youth and women, according to the press release. The bill also identifies the potential of this technology to infringe on constitutional rights.

“The use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights,” the bill states.

According to the bill’s proponents, the use of facial recognition technology, left unchecked, could constitute unwarranted policing and could give the government too much power over biometric data. The press release cites a poll conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in March that found that 82 percent of voters statewide and 79 percent of voters in the Bay Area opposed the government’s possession of and ability to monitor this biometric information.

Regarding its potential for misuse, Andrea Prichett, founder of Berkeley Copwatch, agreed that the technology “is notoriously inaccurate in identifying people of color.” She also worries that it could be used “quite proactively” to police marginalized groups.

“Drawing the boundaries of police power is most effectively done before the issue comes up,” Prichett said.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected].