In a first for a city in the United States, San Francisco has voted to ban its government agencies from using facial recognition technology.
The city’s Board of Supervisors voted eight to one to approve the proposal, set to take effect in a month, that would bar city agencies, including law enforcement, from using the tool. The ordinance would also require city agencies to get board approval for their use of surveillance technology, and set up audits of surveillance tech already in use. Other cities have approved similar transparency measures.
The plan, called the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, was spearheaded by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. In a statement read ahead of the vote, Peskin said it was “an ordinance about having accountability around surveillance technology.”
“This is not an anti-technology policy,” he said, stressing that many tools used by law enforcement are still important to the city’s security. Still, he added, facial recognition is “uniquely dangerous and oppressive.”
The ban comes amid a broader debate over facial recognition, which can be used to rapidly identify people and has triggered new questions about civil liberties. Experts have raised specific concerns about the tools, as studies have demonstrated instances of troubling bias and error rates.
Microsoft, which offers facial recognition tools, has called for some form of regulation for the technology — but how, exactly, to regulate the tool has been contested. Proposals have ranged from light regulation to full moratoriums. Legislation has largely stalled, however.
San Francisco’s decision will inevitably be used as an example as the debate continues and other cities and states decide whether and how to regulate facial recognition. Civil liberties groups like the ACLU of Northern California have already thrown their support behind the San Francisco plan, while law enforcement in the area has pushed back.