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San Francisco inches closer to banning facial recognition

San Francisco inches closer to banning facial recognition
Above: San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco took a step closer to becoming the first city in the country to ban facial recognition software use with the passage of some amendments to the Stop Secret Surveillance ordinance.

The ordinance will face another round of public comment before the County Board of Supervisors votes on it, said Supervisor and Rules Committee chair Aaron Peskin.

“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,” reads the ordinance as proposed by Peskin in January.

Surveillance technology is defined by the city as including things like license plate readers, surveillance cameras, software designed to forecast criminal activity, and biometrics such as iris scanners and facial or gait recognition software.

As San Francisco weighs the Stop Secret Surveillance ordinance, privacy and AI-related regulations are being considered by lawmakers across the United States.

Last week, the Illinois state legislature nearly passed a law that bans recording devices being used without consent.

The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bipartisan bill for commercial use of regulation of facial recognition software and a bill to regulate algorithmic bias.

The legislation the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors is considering would also require city departments to create policy governing the use of surveillance tech, explain acquisition of new surveillance tools, and submit annual reports that detail surveillance and data acquisition methods.

If passed, the city controller’s office will also carry out annual audits of surveillance tools, and the city will solicit public input before the acquisition or deployment of new surveillance systems by city departments.

Though the vote was only to move the bill through the Rules Committee, public comment today resulted in some statements, primarily from advocacy organizations focused on matters of privacy, technology, race, and economic justice.

Groups like the United Educators of San Francisco, as well as several members of the public defender’s office, spoke in favor of a facial recognition software ban because of the potential for government misuse and the expected impact on communities of color. Members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose offices are blocks from City Hall, also supported the proposed ordinance.

One public commenter pointed to Monday’s New York Times front page, which had an article about Microsoft’s role in the use of facial recognition software in China to monitor 500,000 members of its Uighar Muslim population over the span of one month.

“We don’t want that to happen here,” said Tim Kingston, an investigator in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, while speaking during comment before the Rules Committee.

Kingston also said he believes passage of the legislation is important to ensure civilians have oversight and control over the introduction of new surveillance technology, a matter of particular importance for the poor, people of color, and those historically without power in our society.

“Current facial recognition technology is corporate, privately held, it’s proprietary. We don’t know what goes into it, and we’re not going to have access to that unless there’s oversight,” he said.

Research led by MIT’s Joy Buolamwini over the course of the past year has found leading commercially available facial recognition software systems from Microsoft, IBM, and Face++ lacking in their ability to recognize women and people of color.

Amazon’s Rekognition faced similar claims from Buolamwini as well as the ACLU, which the company criticized for being applied out of context. A number of prominent AI researchers last week asked Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement agencies.

Next month, against the objections of company leadership, Amazon shareholders will vote on whether Rekognition use should be limited until a civil rights review can take place.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department would be exempted from the stipulations of the ordinance if the technology is deemed necessary to perform an investigation or prosecution. A letter asserting such necessity must be publicly disclosed and delivered to the city controller for review.

The Stop Secret Surveillance ordinance is the most recent example of San Francisco tech legislation in the national spotlight. The passage of Prop C last fall aroused public debate amid funding by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in favor of Prop C, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison funded opposition to the $300 million business levy tax to battle homelessness.

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