San Francisco becomes first city to bar police from using facial recognition

It won't be the last city to consider a similar law.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
4 min read
Tests On Facial Recognition Technology Begun At Berlin Suedkreuz

Passersby walk under a surveillance camera that's part of a facial recognition technology test at a train station in Berlin. A ban in San Francisco would prevent the city's police from using similar technology.

Steffi Loos/Getty Images

The city of San Francisco approved an ordinance on Tuesday barring the police department and other city agencies from using facial recognition technology on residents. It's the first such ban of the technology in the country.

The ordinance, which passed by a vote of 8 to 1, also creates a process for the police department to disclose what surveillance technology they use, such as license plate readers and cell-site simulators that can track residents' movements over time. But it singles out facial recognition as too harmful to residents' civil liberties to even consider using.

"Facial surveillance technology is a huge legal and civil liberties risk now due to its significant error rate, and it will be worse when it becomes perfectly accurate mass surveillance tracking us as we move about our daily lives," said Brian Hofer, the executive director of privacy advocacy group Secure Justice. The group was joined by ACLU of Northern California and several other advocacy groups in supporting the bill, which was introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

The ban is a first, but San Francisco isn't alone. Several other cities are considering facial recognition bans, including Oakland and Berkeley in California, as well as Somerville, Massachusetts. It's part of a larger backlash against the technology from privacy advocates, as well as lawmakers and even other tech companies.

For example, Microsoft asked the federal government in July to regulate facial recognition technology before it gets more widespread, and said it declined to sell the technology to law enforcement. As it is, the technology is on track to become pervasive in airports and shopping centers and other tech companies like Amazon are selling the technology to police departments.

"The ban sends a signal to law enforcement around the country that if they want to use facial recognition technology, they'll have to convince the public that it can be used in a rights respecting manner, and that the bias issues with the technology have been addressed," said Mana Azarmi, a privacy law advocate at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Watch this: How San Francisco's ban could impact facial recognition tech

The San Francisco Police Department said in a statement that it doesn't use facial recognition technology. Hofer said that's his organization's understanding as well.

"The San Francisco Police Department's mission must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression," the department said in its statement after the ordinance passed. "While we were happy to see some of our concerns addressed in the legislation, until the policy is put into practice, it is unclear what the full impact will be on department operations."

Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the union doesn't oppose the ban outright. But it's concerned that it will take away a useful investigation tool.

"There might be unintended consequences that may inhibit investigation of suspicious criminal activity," Montoya said. He added that police don't make arrests based on leads from electronic investigation tools without thoroughly investigating them first.

Banning the police from using facial recognition outright takes away a potentially valuable public safety tool, said Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who advises police departments on surveillance technology.

It shouldn't be unfettered, he said, but police have legitimate reasons to use the technology at large events that attract outside attention, like the Super Bowl, or at ports of entry where people are entering the country.

"Governments should be able to use facial recognition," Wandt said, "with safeguards in place."

Wandt agreed with civil liberties advocates that a major point of concern is how long government entities keep facial recognition records and other surveillance data. The longer they exist, the more comprehensive an understanding you have of people's movements over time.

Several other cities in California and beyond have already enacted laws that create transparency requirements for surveillance technology that are similar to the one's in San Francisco's ordinance. They require police departments to explain which technologies they are using and submit to a public comment process.

The requirement to go public about surveillance tools is about building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, said Nathan Sheard, a grassroots advocacy organizer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"That trust requires a clear and transparent process for how we decided whether we will or will not acquire surveillance technology," Sheard said.

Originally published May 14, 5 a.m. PT.
Updates, 3:03 p.m.: Adds that the ordinance passed; 3:17 p.m.: Adds statement from San Francisco Police Officers Association; 4:06 p.m.: Adds comment from Nathan Sheard and new comment from Mana Azarmi; 4:34 p.m.: Adds new comment from Brian Hofer; 7:19 p.m.: Adds new comment from SFPD.