San Francisco first US city to ban facial recognition by police

Ban puts US city at the forefront of increasing discontent over the technology used by government agencies for years.

City Supervisor Aaron Peskin speaks before a vote on a surveillance technology
City Supervisor Aaron Peskin speaks before the vote on a surveillance technology ban that he sponsored in San Francisco [Jeffrey Dastin/Reuters]

San Francisco has become the first US city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police or other government agencies.

Officials on Tuesday voted 8 to 1 to ban the purchase and use of facial recognition technology by city personnel, in a move to regulate tools that local Silicon Valley companies helped develop.

“The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring,” read the legislation.

The order, which would also require city departments to submit surveillance technology policies for public vetting, can become final after a second vote next week by the city’s board of supervisors.

The action puts San Francisco at the forefront of increasing discontent in the United States over facial recognition, which government agencies have used for years and now has become more powerful with the rise of cloud computing and artificial intelligence technologies.


“We have a fundamental duty to safeguard the public from potential abuses,” Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who championed the ban, said before the board’s vote.

Peskin said the order was not an anti-technology policy. It allows continued use of surveillance tools like security cameras; the district attorney or sheriff can make an appeal to use certain restricted technology in exceptional circumstances as well.

Rather, Peskin said, the aim is to protect “marginalised groups” that could be harmed by the technology.

Fears of unjust arrests

For instance, Inc has come under scrutiny since last year for selling an image analysis and ID service to law enforcement agencies.

Researchers said the service struggles to identify the gender of individuals with darker skin, prompting fears of unjust arrests. Amazon has defended its work and said all users must follow the law.

Civil rights groups and companies including Microsoft Corp., which markets a facial recognition service, have called for regulation of the technology in recent months. This has added momentum to the effort in San Francisco and to a parallel ban reportedly in the works in nearby Oakland.

While communities at the heart of the technology industry are moving to limit facial recognition, police elsewhere have increased their use, primarily to spot potential suspects in known offender databases after a crime has occurred.


The ban did not include airports or other federally regulated facilities.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, said concerns that the US government would use facial identification for mass surveillance, like China has, were overblown. The non-profit includes technology industry representatives on its board.

San Francisco’s “ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology,” he said.

Source: News Agencies