San Francisco To Ban The Use Of Facial Recognition Tech

The West coast city of San Francisco looks set to become the first metropolitan area in the US to ban the use of facial recognition technology.

The ban would mean that local agencies, such as the local police force and other city agencies such as transportation would not be able to utilise the technology in any of their systems.

It comes amid growing concern at the privacy implications of the technology. Last year for example FBI agents in Columbus, Ohio forced an Apple iPhone X owner to unlock his device with his face, via the device’s Face ID technology.

Facial ban

The FBI had arrested a suspect whilst he was being investigated for child abuse. The FBI had obtained a search warrant and entered the suspect’s home on 10 August as part of their investigation.

Special agent David Knight reportedly unlocked the suspect’s iPhone by holding up the handset to the suspect’s face, as they did not have his phone passcode.

This allowed the FBI investigator to delve into the contents of the suspect’s device, including his online chats and photos, all of which proved highly incriminating.

Cases like this illustrate growing alarm in some quarters at the growing use of facial recognition. A number of police forces in the US (and the UK) already use the tech, but not San Francisco’s local police force.

So this week San Francisco officials at the city’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 8 to 1 to ban the purchase and use of facial recognition technology by city personnel, Reuters reported.

The ban also requires city departments to submit surveillance technology policies for public vetting. The ban would become final after a second vote next week by the same officials.

The draft ban can be found online here.

“We have a fundamental duty to safeguard the public from potential abuses,” Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who championed the ban, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Peskin reportedly said the ban was not an anti-technology policy, as it still allows for the continued use of surveillance tools such as security cameras, and local law enforcement can appeal to use certain restricted technology in exceptional circumstances as well.

Peskin said the aim of the ban was was to protect “marginalized groups” that could be harmed by the technology.

It should be noted that the San Fran ban would only apply to local city agencies and not federal agencies such as the FBI.

This would mean that security measures at San Francisco’s airport or other transport hubs would retain the use of facial recognition.

Privacy fears

San Francisco officials have stated their concern at the implications of facial recognition for privacy and human rights, as some have alleged it can unfairly pick out certain racial groupings.

And this concerns may not be misplaced. As far back as 2011, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher used Facebook photos to demonstrate how facial-recognition technology could be used to identify people as they walked down the street.

Using off-the-shelf facial-recognition software and students’ photos posted on Facebook, Alessandro Acquisiti, a CMU researcher, showed attendees at the annual Black Hat security conference how he was able to positively identify 30 percent of students walking around the campus.

And facial recognition can also be fooled as well. In 2017 Vietnamese cybersecurity firm said it had tricked the facial recognition feature on the iPhone X using a 3D-printed mask.

Researchers at Bkav created a $150 mask, and they said it took them less than a week to spoof Apple’s Face ID. They also said it was even easier than they expected with only half a face needed to create the fake mask.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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