The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a vote on May 14 banning facial recognition legislation, which supporters say shields the public from having their privacy violated by mass surveillance.

The “Stop Secret Surveillance” ordinance, originally proposed by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, bans any city department from using facial recognition surveillance. San Francisco is the U.S. city to ban facial recognition surveillance.

“By allowing for greater notice to the public, the community is given a chance to weigh in on how potentially invasive equipment is used in their city,” said Brian Hofer, the chairman of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission who helped draft similar ordinances in Santa Clara, Davis, Berkeley, Oakland, BART and Palo Alto. “Traditionally, such decisions are unilaterally made, mostly in secret, by the operators of the equipment.”

The ordinance passed a committee vote last Monday. Although the San Francisco Police Department claims they do not use facial recognition technology, many see this as a precautionary law.

“Surveillance without oversight makes us less safe and less free,” said Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, in a statement. “High tech surveillance like drones, social media spying software, and license plate readers can be easily abused. If left unchecked, these systems enable digital profiling, stifle the speech of activists, and increase the chances that people, especially low-income residents and people of color, will be entangled with the police and put in life-threatening situations.”

One group of people that may be targeted by this technology is Muslim-Americans. Recently, China has used facial recognition technologies to target and persecute Uighur Muslims, according to the New York Times. Other countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Angola and Pakistan have purchased this surveillance technology from China, according to the New York Times. However, most of these countries have authoritarian governments in place and thus can implement this technology without the legislative resistance that the United States would likely face.

Vulnerable communities, such as the American Muslim community and people of color, have been targeted by surveillance for decades,” said Sameena Usman, Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Communities should have the ability to weigh in when the acquisition of such surveillance technology is being considered. The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance allows for [the] transparency and oversight of such surveillance technologies.”

“Face surveillance would radically and massively expand the government’s power to track and control people going about their private lives,” Cagle said. “In overpoliced communities of color, face surveillance would supercharge discriminatory watchlisting and could also easily be weaponized by ICE to target immigrants.”

 

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