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Oakland may ban facial recognition tech

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-17 00:00

Surveillance cameras are seen on a street corner in San Francisco, California, the US, May 15, 2019. [Photo/IC]

City may follow San Francisco's lead in denying surveillance devices to local officials

Oakland, California, may follow neighboring San Francisco, which was the first major US city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by local government agencies.

Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission voted unanimously earlier this month to support a proposal that would ban the use of the software.

The proposal would amend the city's current surveillance ordinance and prevent city departments from adopting any facial recognition technology and from using information obtained by the software. The city's police department does not use facial recognition software.

The proposal is under review by the city attorney and administrator. It will be heard later this month at the Public Safety Committee. If the proposal is passed by the committee, it will be presented to the City Council as early as June.

San Francisco's Stop Secret Surveillance ordinance passed by a vote of 8-1 on Tuesday. It bans all city government agencies and the police from using facial surveillance technology in the city.

Facial recognition technology can be used to pick out a face in a crowd or from a video stream online and match it to a criminal database. But civil liberty groups warn that it can be dangerous, as the software is not always accurate and has difficulty identifying people with darker skin tones.

An unknown number of American police departments are already using the technology to match photos from drivers' licenses and mug shots to online crime databases.

While the San Francisco ban has been welcomed by civil liberty groups, it is seen as a blow to tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft, which sell facial surveillance software to government agencies, prisons and the police.

Last year, Bradford L. Smith, the president of Microsoft, said that the technology had such serious implications for citizens that it could not be policed by companies alone and urged Congress to oversee it.

The San Francisco area is home to technology giants Google and Facebook.

Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who sponsored the San Francisco bill, told The New York Times: "We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here."

Joel Engardio, vice-president of the grassroots crime-fighting organization Stop Crime SF, told China Daily in a statement: "We agree there are problems with facial recognition ID technology and it should not be used today."

But Engardio opposed the outright ban in San Francisco and said a moratorium would have been "more appropriate".

"The technology will improve, and it could be a useful tool for public safety when used responsibly and with greater accuracy,'' he said.

In addition to Oakland, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, is also considering a similar ban.

A bill in the Massachusetts Legislature would not only ban the use of facial recognition technology, but also biometric surveillance.

In Washington DC, a bill introduced last month aims to ban anyone using commercial facial recognition technology from sharing the data obtained without consumers' consent.

San Francisco's restrictions on facial recognition software will not apply to the San Francisco International airport, as the Transportation Security Administration, and the US Customs and Borders Protection have a strict set of rules to monitor passengers coming in and out of America.

It also does not affect individuals who want to use facial recognition technology to unlock their smartphones or log onto Facebook and tag a friend in a photo or use other apps.

Shopkeepers and members of the public are still allowed to share footage from security cameras with the police if there has been a crime.

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