SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is on track to become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies, reflecting a growing backlash against a technology that’s creeping into airports, motor vehicle departments, stores, stadiums and home security cameras.
Government agencies around the U.S. have used the technology for more than a decade to scan databases for suspects and prevent identity fraud.
But recent advances in artificial intelligence have created more sophisticated computer vision tools, making it easier for police to pinpoint a missing child or protester in a moving crowd or for retailers to analyze shoppers’ facial expressions as they peruse store shelves.
Efforts to restrict its use are getting pushback from law enforcement groups and the tech industry, though it’s far from a united front.
Microsoft, while opposed to an outright ban, has urged lawmakers to set limits on the technology, warning that leaving it unchecked could enable an oppressive dystopia reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
“Face recognition is one of those technologies that people get how creepy it is,” said Alvaro Bedoya, who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “It’s not like cookies on a browser. There’s something about this technology that really sets the hairs on the back of people’s heads up.”
Without regulations barring law enforcement from accessing driver’s license databases, people who have never been arrested could be part of virtual police line-ups without their knowledge, skeptics of the technology say.
They worry people will one day not be able to go to a park, store or school without being identified and tracked.
Already, a handful of big box stores across the U.S. are trying out cameras with facial recognition that can guess their customers’ age, gender or mood as they walk by, with the goal of showing them targeted, real-time ads on in-store video screens.
If San Francisco adopts a ban, other cities, states or even Congress could follow, with lawmakers from both parties looking to curtail government surveillance and others hoping to restrict how businesses analyze the faces, emotions and gaits of an unsuspecting public.
The California legislature is considering a proposal prohibiting the use of facial ID technology on body cameras. A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate would exempt police applications but set limits on businesses analyzing people’s faces without their consent.
Legislation similar to San Francisco’s is pending in Oakland, Calif., and last Thursday another proposed ban was introduced in Somerville, Mass.
Bedoya said a ban in San Francisco, the “most technologically advanced city in our country,” would send a warning to other police departments thinking of trying out the imperfect technology. But Daniel Castro, vice president of the industry-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the ordinance is too extreme to serve as a model.
“It might find success in San Francisco, but I will be surprised if it finds success in a lot of other cities,” he said.
San Francisco is home to tech innovators such as Uber, Airbnb and Twitter, but the city’s relationship with the industry is testy. Some supervisors in city hall are calling for a tax on stock-based compensation in response to a wave of San Francisco companies going public, including Lyft and Pinterest.
At the same time, San Francisco is big on protecting immigrants, civil liberties and privacy. In November, nearly 60% of voters approved a proposition to strengthen data privacy guidelines.
The city’s proposed face-recognition ban is part of broader legislation aimed at regulating the use of surveillance by city departments. The legislation applies only to San Francisco government and would not affect companies or people who want to use the technology. It also would not affect the use of facial recognition at San Francisco International Airport, where security is mostly overseen by federal agencies.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.
San Francisco police say they stopped testing face recognition in 2017. Spokesman David Stevenson said in a statement the department looks forward to “developing legislation that addresses the privacy concerns of technology while balancing the public safety concerns of our growing, international city.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin acknowledges his legislation, called the “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance,” isn’t very tech-friendly. But public oversight is critical given the potential for abuse, he said.
O’Brien reported from Providence, R.I.