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San Francisco moves to ban use of facial recognition technology

16 May 2019

Tech-savvy San Francisco on Tuesday became the first city in the United States to approve a ban on the government's use of facial recognition technology, The Hill reports.

Two supervisors were absent for Tuesday's vote.

Another vote is set to take place within the week, but it is "seen as a formality", according to TheNYT.

No federal laws govern the use of facial recognition nationwide, and more than 50 state or local police agencies across the country have at some point used facial-recognition systems in attempts to identify criminal suspects or verify identities. Civil liberty groups worry the technology's potential could push the U.S.in the direction of an overly oppressive surveillance state.

City Supervisor Aaron Peskin speaks before a vote on a surveillance technology ordinance that he sponsored, in San Francisco, California, U.S., May 14, 2019.

The biggest question facing the U.S. and the world in general is: do you allow such technologies to be introduced and then consider where to scale them back based on experience, or do you ban them and only allow their introduction after lengthy discussion?

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A similar ban is being considered in the nearby city of Oakland.

After the ordinance passed, Stop Crime SF vice president Joel Engardio said that overall the legislation is "necessary and helpful" though it "could have been better".

"This is not an anti-technology policy", said Aaron, acknowledging that many tools used by law enforcement are vital for the city's security but facial recognition technology is "uniquely risky and oppressive".

Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, argued the legislation was a positive step towards slowing the rise of technologies that may infringe on the rights of communities of color and immigrants. "That's incompatible with a healthy democracy".

ITIF's VP Daniel Castro also told reporters this week that San Francisco ban was going too far and that "an across-the-board ban on something that has some beneficial uses is very misguided and hurts the citizens and the police from using it in beneficial ways". Last month, a NY student sued Apple, claiming the company's facial-recognition software falsely linked him to a series of thefts at Apple stores.

But critics say police need all the help they can get, especially in a city with high-profile events and high rates of property crime.

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The group had been encouraging residents to send a form letter to supervisors.

The ban is part of broader legislation requiring city departments to establish use policies and obtain board approval for surveillance technology they want to purchase or have been using.

Some local homeless shelters use biometric finger scans and photos to track shelter usage, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

"In accordance with the legislation, we are in the process of auditing our technologies and related policies", the statement said. "At the end of the day it's not just about a flawed technology, it's about the invasive surveillance of the public commons".

Once the new rule goes into effect, expected in about a month's time, the city's 53 departments would be banned from using this technology.

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San Francisco moves to ban use of facial recognition technology