27 September 2023

Tech ticked off: The city pushing back against technology

Start the conversation

David Grossman* says that what could be the first official pushback against big tech in the US, the City of San Francisco is preparing to ban facial recognition technology.

Image: 4X-image

As facial recognition technology makes its presence felt across the globe, the City of San Francisco is preparing to ban its use by local Agencies.

Additionally, the city’s police force is expected to disclose the surveillance technology it currently has in place.

The ban and the disclosure come as a part of an ordinance proposed by the city’s Board of Supervisors, which both proponents and detractors expect to pass.

After the ordinance is passed, any city Agency wishing to buy a surveillance system would have to present it to the Board first.

“If we don’t put responsible safeguards in place now and the technology continues to advance in ways the law isn’t able to keep up with, existing disparities and existing biases will run the risk of only being further exacerbated,” says Nathan Sheard, an organiser at the San Francisco privacy-promotion group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

The police disclosure would apply to street-level surveillance systems like automated licence plate readers (ALPRs) and mobile phone–site simulators, otherwise known as Stingrays or IMSI catchers.

ALPRs can portray a driver’s personal life by showing records of a person driving near an immigration centre, gun store, or any other location.

Mobile phone–site simulators can do the same thing by pinpointing the location of phones with greater accuracy than telcos.

But the Board’s main target is facial recognition, the technology that has increasingly become associated with authoritarian measures.

Perhaps the most sweeping embrace of facial recognition has come from China, which has trumpeted its ability to find a single criminal amidst a giant crowd.

It’s also been used to publicly shame pedestrians into stopping jaywalking.

The technology has come under fire across the globe for a variety of reasons.

In England, complaints about racial bias have emerged.

In America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s facial recognition system has a sky-high error rate of nearly 15 per cent.

“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,” the San Francisco ordinance says.

The ban won’t have a huge impact on the day-to-day operations of the San Francisco Police Department, which says it stopped testing the technology in 2017 and hasn’t had any plans to bring it back since.

“[Our] mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression,” David Stevenson, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, told localMercury News.

“We welcome safeguards to protect those rights while balancing the needs that protect the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco.”

But still, some hope the city will reconsider.

Stop Crime SF, a crime-reduction community group, would rather see “a moratorium until the technology improves,” according to the group’s op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“This would give companies an incentive to fix the problems and create a tool for public safety that might be helpful when used responsibly.”

Cities across the US are struggling with how new technology is changing.

Last year, the town of Plattsburgh, New York, passed the first moratorium on Bitcoin mining.

* David Grossman is a staff writer for Popular Mechanics.

This article first appeared at www.popularmechanics.com.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.