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San Francisco Is First U.S. City To Ban Facial Recognition Technology


San Francisco could become the first large city to bar police from using facial recognition software. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This ban wouldn't change anything for San Francisco police right now. They tried a facial recognition system for a time, but sources in the department say they gave up on it because it wasn't much good. But what is significant about this legislation is the way the city has now singled-out facial recognition going forward.


AARON PESKIN: Facial recognition technology is uniquely dangerous and oppressive.

KASTE: That's the legislation's author, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, explaining yesterday why his legislation allows for other kinds of surveillance tech but not facial recognition.


PESKIN: Unlike other technologies, we cannot hide our faces or change what we look like.

KASTE: And Peskin raised the specter of mass surveillance in China, where cameras in the street can now reportedly ID faces in real time. The thing is, that's not how most American police are using facial recognition. So far, it's mostly been used like other forms of biometric evidence - say, fingerprints. It's evidence taken from a crime scene and matched against a database, not surveillance of where everybody goes. Brian van Kleef is a deputy in Washington County, Ore., where the sheriff's office has been very public about its embrace of facial recognition software for solving crimes.

BRIAN VAN KLEEF: It's a needle-in-a-haystack type of thing. We have a needle, or a suspect photo, and we're able to search our haystack of 300,000 previous booking photos and narrow it down to five possible matches.

KASTE: The system compares crime scene images only to booking photos from their jail, and they're not allowed to use it to identify people in real time, say, with a camera pointed at the street. In San Francisco, Joel Engardio wishes his city would keep the door open to responsible uses of the technology.

JOEL ENGARDIO: There's got to be a balance that actually works where you can be both safe and free.

KASTE: He runs a group called Stop Crime SF, formed in response to rampant car break-ins. He says as more residents send in video clips from their home security cameras, facial recognition could help the police to ID suspects more easily. That's why he wishes the city would consider a temporary moratorium rather than an outright ban.

ENGARDIO: When you're in a political climate where your default is just to ban something then you preclude yourself from actually using the benefits of a technology.

KASTE: But privacy advocates worry that waiting to see the benefits of facial recognition will mean giving this technology time to entrench itself as a form of mass surveillance. Alvaro Bedoya runs the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, which has tracked the advance of facial recognition. He says, yes, American police right now use the technology mostly forensically to investigate crimes. But he believes that the police are interested in more real-time applications.

ALVARO BEDOYA: More and more, you see tidbits in trade press, and you see documents from cities and states suggesting that they are making major investments in face surveillance.

KASTE: And that's why Bedoya welcomes this vote by San Francisco, arguably the most tech-savvy big city in the country. If it signals that a red line should be drawn around facial recognition, he says other cities, states and even the federal government might take notice. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.