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San Francisco to Vote on Banning Facial Recognition Use by City

May 13, 2019, 9:17 PM

San Francisco may become the first city in the U.S. to ban local law enforcement and other government departments from using facial recognition technology.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is poised to vote May 14 on the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance. The proposal also would require city departments to get public input and board approval for acquiring other surveillance technologies, such as automated license plate readers.

Privacy and civil liberties groups have pushed for greater public oversight measures for government use of surveillance tech in general, as the technologies become more pervasive. Recent studies have shown that facial recognition software is less accurate when identifying women and people of color.

The proposed ordinance is “part of a trend to impose more community control over the use of surveillance technologies by police departments,” Sharon Bradford Franklin, director of surveillance and cybersecurity policy for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, said.

Other Bay Area communities, such as Oakland, Berkeley, and Palo Alto, already have rules governing the acquisition and use of surveillance tech by local government departments, to promote oversight and transparency. City officials in Oakland and Somerville, Massachusetts also recently proposed bans on facial recognition similar to the San Francisco ordinance.

A coalition of 25 privacy, civil rights, and racial justice groups are backing the San Francisco measure. Facial recognition technology “poses a threat to people of color and would supercharge biased government surveillance of our communities,” the groups, including the ACLU of Northern California, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, wrote in an April letter to local city officials.

The San Francisco Police Department said in a statement that it “strives to be transparent and understands the need for transparency in the use of emerging technologies.”

The department’s mission “must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression,” the department said in its statement. “We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco.”

The San Francisco measure would only apply to city agencies, not to private companies. A U.S. Senate bill (S. 847) by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) would regulate commercial use of facial recognition technology.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Merken in Washington at smerken@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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