SAN FRANCISCO — On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors enacted the first ban by a major city on the use of facial-recognition technology by police and all other municipal agencies.
The vote was 8-1 in favor, with two members who support the bill absent. There will be an obligatory second vote next week but it is seen as a formality.
Police forces across America have begun turning to facial recognition to search for both small-time criminal suspects and perpetrators of mass carnage: authorities used the technology to help identify the gunman in the mass killing at an Annapolis, Maryland, newspaper in June. But civil liberty groups have expressed unease about the technology’s potential abuse by government amid fears that it may shove the United States in the direction of an overly oppressive surveillance state.
Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who announced the bill, said that it sent a particularly strong message to the nation, coming from a city transformed by tech.
“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,” said Peskin, who represents neighborhoods on the northeast side of the city. “We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here.”
Similar bans are under consideration in Oakland, California, and in Somerville, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. In Massachusetts, a bill in the state Legislature would put a moratorium on facial recognition and other remote biometric surveillance systems. On Capitol Hill, a bill introduced last month would ban users of commercial face recognition technology from collecting and sharing data for identifying or tracking consumers without their consent, although it does not address the government’s uses of the technology.
Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, summed up the broad concerns of critics Tuesday: Facial-recognition technology, he said, “provides government with unprecedented power to track people going about their daily lives. That’s incompatible with a healthy democracy.”
The San Francisco proposal, he added, “is really forward-looking and looks to prevent the unleashing of this dangerous technology against the public.”
In one form or another, facial recognition is already being used in many U.S. airports and big stadiums, and by a number of other police departments. Pop star Taylor Swift has reportedly incorporated the technology at one of her shows, using it to help identify stalkers.
The issue has been particularly charged in San Francisco, a city with a rich history of incubating dissent and individual liberties, but one that has also suffered lately from high rates of property crime. A local group called Stop Crime SF asked supervisors to exclude local prosecutors, police and sheriffs from the ordinance when performing investigative duties, as well as an exemption for the airport.
The group had been encouraging residents to send a form letter to supervisors. It argued that the ordinance “could have unintended consequences that make us less safe by severely curtailing the use of effective traditional video surveillance by burying agencies like the police department in a bureaucratic approval process.”
The facial recognition fight in San Francisco is largely theoretical — the Police Department does not currently deploy facial recognition technology, except in its airport and ports that are under federal jurisdiction and are not affected by the legislation.
Some local homeless shelters use biometric finger scans and photos to track shelter usage, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. The practice has driven some residents who are immigrants away from the shelters, she added.
Cagle and other experts said that it was difficult to know exactly how widespread the technology was in the U.S. “Basically governments and companies have been very secretive about where it’s being used, so the public is largely in the dark about the state of play,” he said.
But Dave Maas, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offered a partial list of police departments that he said used the technology, including Las Vegas; San Diego; New York City; Boston; Detroit; Durham, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida; and San Jose, California.
Other users, Maas said, include the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, the California Department of Justice and the Virginia State police.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now using facial recognition in many U.S. airports and ports of sea entry. At airports, international travelers stand before cameras, then have their pictures matched against photos provided in their passport applications. The agency says the process complies with privacy laws, but it has still come in for criticism from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which argues that the government, though promising travelers that they may opt out, has made it increasingly difficult to do so.
But there is a broader concern. “When you have the ability to track people in physical space, in effect everybody becomes subject to the surveillance of the government,” said Marc Rotenberg, the group’s executive director.