Technology at Risk
Is banning surveillance tech worth it?
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Oct 01, 2019
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ vote to ban the use
of facial recognition technology puts the city at risk of not
only falling behind on technological innovation, but returning
to what one expert described as archaic processes.
The board’s 8-to-1 vote on the Stop Secret Surveillance ordinance
on May 14 affects more than facial recognition tech, however. It defines
surveillance technology as “any software, electronic device, system
using an electronic device or a device that is used, designed or
primarily intended to collect, retain, process or share” a variety of
datasets. Those include thermal, olfactory, visual and biometric data,
pushing what encompasses “surveillance technology” to well beyond
cameras to include cell site simulators, automatic license plate readers,
gunshot detection hardware and services, closed-circuit TV cameras
and wearable body cameras.
“For me, this is a bit of an overreach,” said Alison Brooks, research
director for smart cities strategies and public safety at IDC. “What San
Francisco is doing is, in fact, not allowing for the digital workflow to
occur. I think that they want people to go back to, for example, sorting
through mug shots archaically, manually, and that doesn’t make
any sense from a cost-savings perspective or a work time perspective.
It’s just going to cost their police force that much more money to connect
all those dots.”
Some places are experiencing success with facial recognition technology.
For instance, the Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center has used
it to identify criminals in cases involving petty theft and homicides.
Additionally, police in Maryland used the technology to identify Jarrod
Ramos, who killed five newspaper employees in Annapolis last
year, when he refused to state his name.
“It’s not real clear that there’s a good reason for this ban,” said
Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and
Innovation Foundation. “There are a whole spectrum of uses for
facial recognition technology, from very simple organizing photos
to trying to identify a suspect or a witness or anyone involved in
a crime…. There’s lots of benign uses, uses that are completely in
line with the manual activity that police do during the day,” such
as manually looking through photos or asking the public to help
The San Francisco board’s vote is partially in response to studies
that have shown that the technology can be inaccurate and racially
biased. For example, a recent test of Amazon’s Rekognition software
that the company markets to law enforcement, found that it was more
accurate in assessing lighter-skinned faces.
“While surveillance technology may threaten the privacy of all of
us, surveillance efforts have historically been used to intimidate and
oppress certain communities and groups more than others, including
those that are defined by a common race, ethnicity, religion, national
origin, income level, sexual orientation, or political perspective,”
according to the ordinance. “The propensity for facial recognition
technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially
outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate
racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government
Still, the technology is maturing amid calls for greater accuracy
and transparency. The National Institute of Standards and Technology
reported in its “Ongoing Facial Recognition Vendor Test” last
December that the software has improved significantly since NIST
studies of it in 2010 and 2014.
The vote also acknowledges pressure from the American Civil
Liberties Union’s West Coast offices, which Brooks said tends to be
more protectionist than other locations. Matt Cagle, a lawyer with
the ACLU of Northern California, told the New York Times last week
that the technology “provides government with unprecedented power
to track people going about their daily lives. That’s incompatible
with a healthy democracy.”
Part of the problem is that the shortcomings of both the technologies
and uses have been conflated, Castro said. For instance, uproar
over FBI’s surveillance of protesters in 2015 after the death of Freddie
Gray was more about improper or unwarranted surveillance of political
protest than of facial recognition technology itself.
“Because there is already such organized opposition to some of
this police behavior, the objections are getting tacked on to facial recognition
because I think that’s seen as an opportunity to push back
on policing in general,” Castro said. “Some of that pushback is completely
legitimate, but it’s conflating the technology with the activities,
which I think can be separated out.”
A happy medium exists, but more testing and policies are needed
to find it. Castro pointed to a pilot test of real-time surveillance in Orlando
in which police officers tracked themselves—a good example,
he said, of how a police department can start moving forward with
the cutting edge of technology before applying it to citizens. (Orlando
police ended their pilot program with Rekognition in July).
Indeed, the San Francisco board included a number of exceptions
to the ban. For instance, it doesn’t apply to federally controlled
facilities at San Francisco International Airport and the city’s port,
nor does it restrict business or personal use of the technology. The
ordinance also includes calls for policies that address transparency,
oversight and accountability measures as well as rules governing the
procurement of surveillance technologies.
Similar bans were passed in Oakland, Calif., and Somerville,
Mass. Earlier this year, and the House Oversight and Reform Committee
held a May 22 hearing on facial recognition software, where
committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said lawmakers
largely agree that the technology should be regulated.
“I think this is an area where it would be helpful for Congress to
be a little more proactive,” Castro said.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Security Today.