On 14 May, San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition technology by the police and local government agencies. The city's Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 for adopting the "Stop Secret Surveillance" ordinance.
"The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring", the ordinance says.
Commenting on the newly adopted measure, David Stevenson, director of strategic communications at the San Francisco Police Department, stated that the department's "mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression".
"We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco", Stevenson said. "While we were happy to see some of our concerns addressed in the legislation, until the policy is put into practice, it is unclear what the full impact will be on department operations".
Police Urgently Need Facial Recognition to Fight Crime
Anil Jain, a distinguished professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at Michigan State University, insists that law enforcement agencies need the technology to fight crime.
"Police need such a system urgently because the size of the criminal database is increasing rapidly", the professor argues. "It is not possible for a forensic examiner to search a suspect's photo against database with millions of photos. As the number of surveillance cameras is increasing worldwide, it will lead to reduction in crime and fraud, the suspects will be identified quickly as well".
"This is an age old debate on 'security v. privacy'", he highlighted. "If we want to live in a society which is safe and secure, we have to give up some privacy, especially when you are in public places".
According to the academic, to solve the privacy dilemma, "citizens should be made aware why and how facial recognition is being used, who will have access to the face database and how will the database be safeguarded".
Moratorium on Facial Recognition Would Have Been More Appropriate
Proponents of the ban argue that while facial recognition systems are good at identifying white people, they have problems with recognising black faces. They refer to Google image recognition software's failure to identify African Americans and classifying them as "gorillas" in 2015, while in 2018 Amazon's Face Recognition falsely matched 28 black congressmen with criminals. For its part, the AI Now Institute cited the case when Uber's facial recognition software repeatedly failed to identify transgender drivers.
Joel Engardio, the vice president of Stop Crime SF, suggested that instead of an outright ban "a moratorium" would have been more appropriate.
"We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today", Engardio noted. "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. Especially when facial recognition technology can help locate missing children, people with dementia and fight sex trafficking".
Meanwhile, The New York Times has dropped a hint that some other American cities may follow San Francisco's suit. According to the media outlet, Brian Hofer, a local privacy activist and the executive director of Secure Justice, who drafted the surveillance ordinance, is pushing for more facial recognition bans in Berkeley and Oakland.
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