Chris Middleton reports on how sensors are at bay in the heart of Silicon Valley as one city takes a stand against facial recognition systems.

San Francisco, the fulcrum of the US technology sector, this week announced a ban on the use of facial recognition systems by police and security agencies, making it the first US city to do so.

Following a majority vote, city supervisor Aaron Peskin said, “We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here.” The ban also prohibits the use of data gathered by facial recognition systems in the city.

The surprise move came in the wake of rising unease in the US and UK over the use of real-time recognition systems to identify suspects. Some civil liberties groups believe that the risk of countries becoming surveillance states is too high, while others point to problems such as racial profiling by police forces.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) criticised Amazon over sales to two police forces of its real-time Recognition system, which can be fitted to officers’ body cameras. The technology enables live citizen surveillance, said the union, and discriminates against ethnic minorities because of poor training data, leading to people being misidentified and/or profiled by the police.

Speaking of the San Francisco ban this week, ACLU lawyer Matt Cagle said that real-time facial recognition “provides government with unprecedented power to track people going about their daily lives. That’s incompatible with a healthy democracy.”

The feelings are shared on this side of the Atlantic. In the UK last year, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee quoted findings from privacy group Big Brother Watch that the Metropolitan Police had achieved less than two percent accuracy with its own automated facial recognition system. In a trial programme, just two people were correctly identified and 102 were incorrectly ‘matched’. The force made no arrests using the technology.

The Committee recommended that such systems should “not generally be deployed, beyond the current pilots” until questions about their effectiveness and potential for bias could be answered.

Politicians and privacy watchdogs are not alone in warning of the potential abuse of such systems. Last year, Microsoft urged the US government to regulate facial recognition. In a blog post, company president Brad Smith wrote, “Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections, like privacy and freedom of expression.”

He called for “a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission”.

  • Last year, California introduced data privacy regulations that could form the basis for de facto GDPR-style rules in the US. The California Consumer Privacy Act comes into force in 2020, but was opposed by Google, Facebook, and other advertising-driven technology companies.

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