Surveillance cameras at United Nations Plaza on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF becomes first U.S. city to ban facial-recognition software

Legislation provides public oversight of surveillance technology use by government agencies

San Francisco became the first major U.S. city Tuesday to prohibit the use of facial-recognition technology by the government.

The Board of Supervisors voted 8-to-1 to approve legislation introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin that enacts the ban on facial-recognition and also increases oversight on the use of other surveillance technologies by the police department and other city agencies.

The proposal was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Oakland has also proposed a ban on facial-recognition technology.

“Even if the technology is ultimately perfect, facial-recognition technology is uniquely dangerous and oppressive,” Peskin said. “Unlike other technologies, we cannot hide our faces or change what we look like. This technology, even when it is accurate, is being used around the world for mass surveillance of minority groups as is happening in western China with the Uyghur Muslim minority community.”

Some critics of the proposal like Stop Crime SF, a group that advocates for tougher punishment for those who commit neighborhood crimes, opposed an outright ban on facial-recognition technology.

”We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today,” said Joel Engardio, vice president of Stop Crime SF. “But the technology will improve and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly and with greater accuracy. We should keep the door open for that possibility.”

“We are disappointed there was not an exemption for large public events,” he added,

The legislation does not prohibit facial-recognition technology at the federally regulated Port of San Francisco and the San Francisco International Airport.

Mayor London Breed told the San Francisco Examiner Tuesday before the board’s vote that she hadn’t decided if she supports a ban on facial-recognition technologies and raised concerns about the oversight restrictions interfering with neighborhood anti-crime efforts.

Several amendments made Tuesday were intended to address some concerns over the proposal, including those from the Police Department.

Under the legislation, city departments must publicly disclose their existing surveillance technologies. They will have to create technology use plans and introduce them to the Board of Supervisors for approval. The initial proposal said those plans would have to be submitted within 120 days, that was extended to 180 days. The plans will determine how they use it and include information on how long data will be retained and who will have access to the data.

Another change allows departments to continue to use existing surveillance equipment until the board approves a policy, even if it’s after 180 days of when the plans were due.

Surveillance use plans would need to be created and approved as well before any department could purchase new surveillance technologies.

City departments must also submit annual plans detailing use of their surveillance technologies.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted against the measure. She said she worried about “politicizing these decisions” and compromising the ability for city departments to collect information “that will keep the public safe.”

But Peskin said that “this is not an anti-technology policy.”

“As policy makers, we have a fundamental duty to safeguard the public from potential abuses of these rapidly-evolving technologies,” he said.

The ACLU of Northern California said in a statement that “this law sets a strong standard for public safety in the digital age.”

“We encourage other communities to say no to face surveillance, and to put rules in place to make sure technology works for the people, not against them,” the statement said.

Supervisors Shamann Walton and Hillary Ronen were absent from the meeting.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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