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SF Bans Facial Recognition Tech -- For SF

Facial Recognition System concept.
By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

In a move to curb government surveillance, San Francisco has banned itself from using facial recognition technology.

The ordinance is the first of its kind for any major American city, and extends to local police and all other agencies in the city and county. The board of supervisors approved the ban "to ensure the safe and responsible use" of the technology. The supervisors said it is part of data privacy reforms signed into California law last year, and emphasized it is not an "anti-technology policy."

That's an important distinction when you're talking to Silicon Valley.

Stop Secret Surveillance

The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance also requires city departments to seek approval before acquiring any new surveillance equipment. The ordinance does not apply to non-government entities, including any that use facial recognition technology. However, it does affect companies that sell tech to the city or have contracts with it. "I want to be clear -- this is not an anti-technology policy," said supervisor Aaron Peskin. He said it is "to ensure the safe and responsible use" of surveillance tech. TechCrunch reported that he "deemphasized the ban aspect of the ordinance, and instead framed it as part of data privacy reform." That's because facial recognition technology is controversial.

Everybody with a late-model iPhone uses facial recognition tech to unlock their phones, but few people like the tech being used to surveil them. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation say it changes our expectations of privacy. "If unleashed, face surveillance would suppress civic engagement, compound discriminatory policing, and fundamentally change how we exist in public spaces ," the ACLU said in support of the the San Francisco ordinance.

Facial Recognition Police

For privacy advocates, the new law is a step forward. However, law enforcement is miles ahead in using facial recognition technology. According to reports, half of all Americans are already in a facial recognition database. The FBI said is facial recognition project is at "full operational capability."

In New York, police have busted more than 4,000 people using DMV records and facial recognition software."The use of this facial recognition technology has allowed law enforcement to crack down on fraud, identity theft, and other offenses -- taking criminals and dangerous drivers off our streets and increasing the safety of New York's roadways," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

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