San Francisco’s decision late Tuesday to become the first U.S. city to ban its police and other agencies from using facial recognition offers the latest lesson in the underlying conundrum of the technology.
Does government embrace facial recognition’s promise of enhanced security? Or does it lean in the direction of protecting privacy? San Francisco, the worldwide hub of technology, chose the latter
In an 8-to-1 vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors approved the “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance,” which goes into effect in a month. It requires city agencies to get board approval for the use of facial recognition tools in surveillance, as well as audits of surveillance tech already in use.
“This is not an anti-technology policy,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who wrote the proposal, said in a statement ahead of the vote. It is “an ordinance about having accountability around surveillance technology.”
A key tenet of the law, cited by privacy advocates at the ACLU and elsewhere, is that “technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring.”
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What happens next is unclear for a technology increasingly eyed by government officials, law enforcement, and business owners.
In March, Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced legislation that would bar businesses from using facial recognition without telling customers, and prevent them from sharing that data without people’s consent. Microsoft (ticker: MSFT), which makes facial-recognition tools, has also called for some form of regulation.
Revenue from facial recognition is expected to more than double to $10.2 billion by 2025, according to ResearchandMarkets.com. Market researcher Grand View Research estimates the size of the government “facial biometrics” market will grow to $375 million in 2025, from $136.9 million in 2018.
Law enforcement, in particular, has embraced technology that makes it easier to identify possible criminal conduct based on facial files since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. More than 50% of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial-recognition database, according to research this year by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.
Facial recognition backers say the San Francisco law is a poor model for other U.S. cities because it doesn’t take into account upgrades to the technology that make communities safer without trampling the privacy of citizens.
“It would be a mistake if San Francisco creates a domino effect of other cities following, though I suspect San Francisco is an outlier,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the industry-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “There are safeguards to facial recognition in the works, in the form of required warrants to track the location of suspects, and best practices in the use of data.”
City-wide bans, he warns, would compromise the ability of law enforcement to pinpoint security risks in large crowds.
Use of the technology is not nearly as common in the U.S. as it is in Asia, because cities and communities are methodically studying how it is used, facial-recognition experts say.
“The vote in San Francisco points to the need for a larger debate on the proper use of facial recognition, how it works in concert with law enforcement, and how it is deployed for citizens,” said Dan Grimm, vice president and general manager of computer vision at RealNetworks (RNWK), which has developed facial-recognition software for three years.
“The technology is indeed powerful, but it is an important additional tool for law enforcement,” he said.
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