San Francisco is to become the first USA 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.
There are now no federal laws addressing how artificial-intelligence technology in general, or facial-recognition systems specifically, can be used, though a Senate bill introduced in March would force companies to get consent from consumers before collecting and sharing identifying data.
The ordinance also requires all department to produce a report within 60 days that lists any and all technology, including software, that is used to "collect, retain, process or share" a person's data: broadly defined as any data that is "audio, electronic, visual, location, thermal, biometric, olfactory or similar".
"We all support good policing but none of us want to live in a police state", San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the bill earlier this year, told CNN Business ahead of the vote.
The biggest question facing the USA and the world in general is: do you allow such technologies to be introduced and then consider where to scale them back based on experience, or do you ban them and only allow their introduction after lengthy discussion?
Speaking to the Guardian last week, Peskin said the new regulations were meant to address concerns about the accuracy of technology and put a stop to creeping surveillance culture. "That's incompatible with a healthy democracy". However, it won't have an effect on federally regulated facilities such as the airport and port. Pop star Taylor Swift has reportedly incorporated the technology at one of her shows, using it to help identify stalkers.
San Francisco ordinance will also require all new surveillance equipment to be approved by city leaders.
Some locals have been vocally opposed to the surveillance ordinance, including several groups of residents.
The San Francisco board (council) did not spend time debating the outright ban on facial recognition technology, focusing instead on the possible burdens placed on the police, the transit system and other city agencies that need to maintain public safety.
The ban is part of broader oversight legislation that orders San Francisco departments to spell out details of any surveillance now in use and any surveillance they hope to use.
Those in favour of the move said the technology as it exists today is unreliable, and represented an unnecessary infringement on people's privacy and liberty. "Basically governments and companies have been very secretive about where it's being used, so the public is largely in the dark about the state of play", he said.
"Ultimately we need state-wide and federal laws to guarantee our constitutional rights to privacy, and the San Francisco-area ordinances are a good place to start", Garaffa said. The agency says the process complies with privacy laws, but it has still come in for criticism from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which argues that the government, though promising travelers that they may opt out, has made it increasingly hard to do so. At airports, global travelers stand before cameras, then have their pictures matched against photos provided in their passport applications.
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