Facial recognition technology was, for a long time, mostly considered a work of fiction. The idea is that computers can identify people simply by looking at their face, rather than using passwords, thumbprints, retina scans, or any other means. This doesn’t sound too terribly bad, until people began to realize that surveillance that could recognize them by such means could have some nasty implications for society. At the very least, people were generally worried about their privacy, since it isn’t very comfortable to know that any camera in a city could know exactly who you are just by looking at you.
Apparently San Francisco has come to many of the same conclusions; on Tuesday, officials voted 8 to 1 to ban the use and even the purchase of facial recognition technology by city personnel, regulating tools that, ironically, the local Silicon Valley played a large part in developing. This ordinance will also require city departments to submit their surveillance policies for review and vetting. Right now it is only an ordinance, but it can become law after a second vote next week, made by the same board. Considering the overwhelming 8 to 1 vote on Tuesday, it seems unlikely that a majority of will change their minds and overturn the ordinance or prevent it from becoming final.
Legally speaking, this action makes San Francisco the vanguard of mounting discontent in the US regarding facial recognition. While governments have been using a relatively mundane variant of it for the past several years, the increase in cloud computing ability and artificial intelligence technology is making facial recognition more questionable than ever before.
San Francisco states that this ordinance is not an anti-technology law, but rather a security one. It doesn’t prohibit the use of security cameras, and in certain cases with law enforcement, facial recognition technology would still have the potential to be used. The ordinance is instead aimed at preventing abuses against marginalized groups. One such example of what they are trying to prevent is the recent issue with Amazon’s image analysis and ID service for law enforcement; the service struggled to identify the gender of individuals with darker skins, prompting fears of unjust arrests made with inaccurate readings.
Even Microsoft, which itself is advancing facial recognition technology, has pressed for firm regulations on it in recent months. It is quite clear that the American people are uncomfortable with facial recognition technology, and it isn’t really a surprise: for those that value their privacy, being recognized anywhere and anytime by the government is not desirable. Furthermore, as no technology is perfect, concerns over whether or not arrests will be made due to faulty identification are also warranted.
Even so, San Francisco is the only city to take preventative measures against these possibilities thus far. Whether or not other cities, states, or the country itself will follow suit remains to be seen, though we should all hope that this potentially dangerous technology is regulated.