San Francisco is to become the first U.S. city to outlaw a rapidly developing technology that has alarmed privacy and civil-liberties advocates, as the liberal city’s supervisors voted Tuesday to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who championed the legislation, said he was worried that Big Brother technology would lead to a greater police state in San Francisco, a city teeming with tech innovation and the home of Twitter, Airbnb and Uber.
“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,” Peskin, who represents neighborhoods on the northeast side of the city, said. “We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here.”
San Francisco’s police department stopped testing face ID technology in 2017. A representative at Tuesday’s board meeting said the department would need two to four additional employees to comply with the legislation.
The ban is part of broader legislation requiring city departments to establish use policies and obtain board approval for surveillance technology they want to purchase or have been using. Several other local governments have required departments to disclose and seek approval for surveillance technology.
The ban applies to San Francisco police and other municipal departments. It neither affects use of the technology by the federal government at airports and ports nor limits personal or business use.
Critics have said police need all the help they can get, especially in a city with high-profile events and high rates of property crime. That people expect privacy in the public space is unreasonable given the proliferation of cellphones and surveillance cameras, said Meredith Serra, a member of a resident public safety group Stop Crime SF.
“To me, the ordinance seems to be a costly additional layer of bureaucracy that really does nothing to improve the safety of our citizens,” she said at a hearing.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a statement chiding San Francisco for considering the facial recognition ban. It said advanced technology has made it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.
Daniel Castro, the foundation’s vice president, said critics were silly to compare surveillance usage in the United States with China, given that one country has had strong constitutional protections and the other has not.
“In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China, a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.