San Francisco Debuts Nation’s First Facial Recognition Regulation with Ban on Government Use

Posted on May 28, 2019

An article last week from Wired reported that San Francisco has passed the nation’s first ban on government use of facial recognition technology. Enacted by the city’s Board of Supervisors, the measure was adopted as part of a suite of surveillance safeguards, alongside regulation requiring the city to disclose the intended use of surveillance equipment or software and gain approval before purchase.

The new ban will govern all city agencies, which notably include a police department with a long history of brutality and outright bigotry against people of color. As the article notes, academic studies have demonstrated that facial recognition, in its current form, routinely misidentifies people of color, who are already subject to overpolicing and systemic bias.

San Francisco’s facial recognition ban does not pertain to private sector businesses, or services or software offered by private companies. Neither, critically, will the measure bar state and federal agencies from using the technology. While it is too early to determine how the policy will shape law enforcement practices in the Bay Area, its limited jurisdiction may prove to be the legislation’s fatal flaw, as coordination between state and federal law enforcement with local police, often via fusion centers, is increasingly common under the pretext of combating domestic terrorism.

As an alternative to an outright prohibition like San Francisco’s, other states and municipalities are considering moratoria on facial recognition until proper maturation and testing to preclude racial or other biases has taken place. One such moratorium was defeated in Washington state, but depending on the impact San Francisco’s government facial ban ultimately has, it may encourage more legislative bodies to consider moratoria to buy time for sufficient civil liberties guardrails to be developed, and for the repercussions of San Francisco’s ban to become fully apparent.

The Chicago City Council has yet to consider any possible ordinance regulating police use of facial recognition or other camera surveillance, despite the fact that Chicago reportedly has more surveillance cameras (at least 30,000, counting “federated” cameras feeding into police) of any U.S. city.

You can read the full article from Wired here.