Oakland committee to take up police use of face recognition technology following San Francisco ban

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About a month after San Francisco became the first in the country to  ban the use of facial recognition software, Oakland and Berkeley are set to take up the controversial issue as well.

On Tuesday, Oakland's Public Safety Committee will consider whether to ban use of the particular technology, which police departments argue can help catch criminals but which civil libertarians counter could allow Big Brother to run amok.

The proposed ban is being introduced by Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who cited a Microsoft researcher who called the technology "toxic." She agreed with many critics who say that face recognition systems rely on "biased datasets with high levels of inaccuracy and lack standards around its use which has already lead to misidentification and manipulation of data."

Kaplan also noted that the "invasive nature of this technology has also resulted in government abuses including its use to persecute Muslims in China and police accountability activists in Baltimore."

At MIT graduate herself, Kaplan said: “I welcome emerging technologies that improve our lives and facilitate city governance, but when multiple studies show a technology is flawed, biased, and is having unprecedented, chilling effects to our freedom of speech and religion, we have to take stand.  It is important to build trust and good relationships between community and police and to remedy racial bias, however this flawed technology could make those problems worse. The right to privacy and the right to equal protection are fundamental and we cannot surrender them.”

In response, Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick is asking the council not to ban the technology outright, but allow police to use it after a crime has occurred to match potential criminals to crimes that have already occurred. Kirkpatrick also noted that now, police cannot buy any technology without the approval of the city's Privacy Advisory Commission anyway, so why not just keep that rule in effect? Currently, no city department uses face recognition technology.

Kirkpatrick has support, too.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a statement chiding San Francisco for considering the facial recognition ban ahead of its vote in May. It said advanced technology makes it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.

Critics like Kaplan are silly to compare surveillance usage in the United States with China, given that one country has strong constitutional protections and the other does not, said Daniel Castro, the foundation's vice president.

"In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China_a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology," he told the Associated Press.

And the fact that people expect privacy in public space is unreasonable given the proliferation of cellphones and surveillance cameras, said Meredith Serra, a member of a resident public safety group Stop Crime SF.

While Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission, who helped write the ordinance, said it seems as though police departments' requests to use the tech to capture criminals' mug shots appears reasonable, he is trying to prevent what he sees as inevitable abuses that are likely to occur in the future. 

When automated license plate readers were introduced, he said, they were just supposed to be used for stolen cars. Now, the technology is used from everything to criminal investigators to finding people who are faking their worker's compensation claims. "You can't just stop with hypotheticals," he said. "The difficulty is to be able to see down the road. We just want a ban straight across-the-board." 

Hofer himself was detained at gunpoint for driving a car with a stolen license plate, but it turned out to be an error because the car had been recovered; only no one had updated the system. And there are several other studies that show the technology is flawed, and more often misidentifies people of color. 

Like San Francisco, Oakland's proposed ban, would apply just to police and other municipal departments. It does not affect use of the technology by the federal government at airports and ports, nor does it limit personal or business use. The city of Berkeley is considering similar legislation in July.

The issue is playing out on the federal level, too.

This month, the Government Accountability Office said the FBI has access to about 640 million photographs - including from driver's licenses, passports and mugshots - that can be searched using facial recognition technology.

Dozens of civil liberties advocates asked lawmakers this week to implement a temporary, federal moratorium on the facial recognition technology.

"Lawmakers must put the brakes on law enforcement use of this technology until Congress decides what, if any, use cases are permissible," said Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.