San Francisco has just become the first city in the United States to entirely ban local government and law enforcement uses of facial recognition technology. Although the ordinance is currently limited in its reach, only really applying to city agencies such as the SFPD, it does strictly regulate the future deployment of all kinds of surveillance technology.
Called the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, the bill contains two major legislative proposals. The first, and most novel, is an outright ban on all local governmental uses of facial recognition technology. San Francisco is the first city in the country to push the issue this far into an outright ban, although at this stage the prohibition is entirely hypothetical as the city police department does not currently use the technology. The prohibition does not extend to private businesses or areas in the city under federal jurisdiction, such as the airport.
In regard to the somewhat symbolic nature of this prohibition city official Aaron Peskin suggested the ordinance was designed to not only send a message to the entire country, but also to the majority of large tech companies located in the city.
"I think part of San Francisco being the real and perceived headquarters for all things tech also comes with a responsibility for its local legislators," Peskin told The New York Times. "We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here."
The second legislative proposal in the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance lays out a framework for transparency and oversight into the deployment of all general surveillance technologies. This demands government and law enforcement agencies seek approval from the city's Board of Supervisors before any such technological tool is deployed. This second proposal covers everything from police body cameras and automatic license plate readers, to predictive policing software and biometric surveillance systems.
This particular aspect of the ordinance echoes an ongoing project from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS). This effort was launched back in 2016 in order to legislate public control and transparency over what technologies are used by local law enforcement agencies. To date, over 10 city councils across the US have approved CCOPS legislation with dozens more working on passing the oversight regulations.
Despite the fundamental limitations of this new San Francisco ordinance, it may shine a light on exactly how widespread the use of these new technologies actually is. The use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies in the US is currently booming, with some estimates suggesting the market took in over US$130 million in 2018.
Concerns are being raised that these technologies are being deployed with great secrecy and no oversight. Several instances by privacy advocates to get police departments to reveal exactly what surveillance systems they are using have failed, and police uses of facial recognition technologies do not need to be revealed in court.
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