Facial recognition ban highlights hypocrisy

CITY AFFAIRS: A ban means a ban.

Illustration of facial recognition technology
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

In its current state, facial recognition technology is incredibly controversial, thanks in large part to its repeated bias against people of color and numerous privacy violations. Ergo, it’s a good thing that the city of Berkeley decided to ban the technology altogether, becoming the fourth city in the country to do so.

Not such a good thing? The fact that the city actually acquired facial recognition technology that could have been employed before the ban went into effect. 

After a drive-by shooting at San Pablo Park in August 2018, the city installed advanced security cameras in response to safety concerns. These cameras were equipped with facial recognition technology, although this wasn’t reported as such at the time. To make matters worse, when the facial recognition ban was in the works, city staff attempted to exempt the San Pablo Park cameras from having to comply. 

While installing cameras is a valid response to a violent incident, it’s unnerving that the Berkeley Police Department sought to keep facial recognition cameras at San Pablo Park. Even worse, the city had begun making plans to acquire facial recognition technology two weeks before the shooting in question — then afterward tried to pin its rationale for considering these measures on that shooting. 

On top of the already worrying transparency concerns, installing and trying to exempt this kind of technology at San Pablo Park, which is located in a predominantly Black neighborhood, are implicitly racist actions. As of March, when the 17 cameras were initially installed, there were no plans to put up security cameras in other parks throughout the city. If addressing gun violence and protecting citizens is the supposed motivation behind keeping these cameras, BPD might instead consider focusing its efforts on preventative measures and proactive solutions. 

Keeping facial recognition technology under wraps concentrates a lot of private data in the hands of a few powerful people, which can be used to support unjust legislation and policies. Facial recognition isn’t even where it needs to be to help improve safety throughout the city; if anything, it skews against the communities the cameras are meant to protect.

It’s appalling that the city refused to openly acknowledge the existence of advanced video technology, even after news broke of the city’s plans to acquire high-level surveillance equipment before the ban. At best, it’s possible that higher-ups and public officials were unaware that this was even going on — in that case, it’s unacceptable that senior city officials didn’t know about any of it.

Banning facial recognition technology, yet considering exemptions for certain locations of said technology, is hypocritical, to say the least. City officials ought to know about their own involvement in the technologies they are banning and, more importantly, make their own use of morally and algorithmically questionable devices transparent to the public. 

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.