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San Francisco bans government use of facial recognition technology


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: San Francisco bans government use of facial recognition technology

  • Veteran’s death highlights inhumane conditions in an Ohio jail

  • In D.C., policing of petty offenses is largely policing of Black people

  • Delaware high court disqualifies prosecutors who stole a defendant’s files and notes

  • Former Nevada attorney general says people with felony convictions should retain the right to vote

In the Spotlight

San Francisco bans government use of facial recognition technology

Yesterday, San Francisco became the first major city in the United States to ban government use of facial recognition technology. The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance passed in an 8-1 vote. A second vote next week is expected to be a formality. The ordinance prevents city agencies, including the police department, from using facial recognition technology, or information from other systems that use the technology. [Kate Conger, Richard Fausset, and Serge F. Kovaleski / New York Times]

The ban comes as the use of facial recognition technology by government agencies and companies becomes more common in the U.S. and around the world. A number of local and state police departments use the technology as does U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at many airports and other ports of entry. (San Francisco’s ordinance will not cover federal agencies, including at airports and ports.) Recent reporting by NBC News looked at how facial recognition, rather than being reserved for the most serious cases, has become a routine policing tool. One study estimates that 1 in 4 U.S. police agencies have access to systems that allow them to tap into vast databases to run facial recognition searches. [Jon Schuppe / NBC News]

There has been growing concern about the technology’s potential for error, abuse, and widespread surveillance. Last year, the ACLU tested Amazon’s Rekognition software, by building a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos and comparing photos of members of Congress against the database. The software misidentified 28 members of Congress as present in the database. Forty percent of the representatives who were misidentified were people of color (though people of color make up only 20 percent of Congress), including civil rights hero Representative John Lewis of Georgia.

In January, MIT researchers published a study that found that Rekognition, which Amazon has aggressively marketed to police departments and ICE, had a high error rate in identifying the gender of female faces and darker-skinned faces. Rekognition’s error rate was higher than that of comparable technology from Microsoft and IBM, whose own high error rates had been the subject of previous study that led the companies to release more accurate technology. [Natasha Singer / New York Times]

Amazon has marketed Rekognition to police departments and ICE despite concerns about inaccuracy, particularly with respect to misidentification of people of color and women. Recently, Microsoft asked governments in the U.S. and elsewhere to move forward with comprehensive regulation, in a statement from the company’s president that warned of “a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success.”

But accuracy is only one of the concerns. The use of facial recognition technology along with mass surveillance has enormous implications for privacy. As Nathan Sheard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote yesterday, alluding to the use of real-time facial recognition technology, “we are at a precipice where this technology could soon be used to track people in real-time. This would place entire communities of law-abiding residents into a perpetual line-up, as they attend worship, spend time with romantic partners, attend protests, or simply go about their daily lives.” [Nathan Sheard / Electronic Frontier Foundation]

Cities are leading the fight to take back power over surveillance technology. In California, Oakland is on track to pass a ban on facial recognition technology that is similar to San Francisco’s. (Like San Francisco’s, Oakland’s ban would not prohibit private use of the technology.) Oakland already requires a public approval process for any new surveillance technology. Both cities’ police departments do not use facial recognition software but, as Sarah Holder and Tanvi Misra write in City Lab, “preemptively prohibiting the technology fits into a broader effort to establish San Francisco and Oakland as ‘digital sanctuaries’—places where government data collecting and sharing is underpinned by transparency, accountability, and equity.” [Sarah Holder and Tanvi Misra / City Lab]

San Francisco’s ordinance still permits private individuals to share tips with law enforcement, as long as agencies do not actively seek information that they know comes from facial recognition systems. Agencies must ask how information was obtained. A legislative aide to Aaron Peskin, the ordinance’s lead sponsor, told Wired that this would allow the city to track unintended consequences. “If there’s a huge uptick, then that might mean we’re shoving facial recognition into a less-regulated private sector,” he said. [Gregory Barber / Wired]

While San Francisco and Oakland, and California as a whole, are at the forefront of the fight for power in regulating surveillance, cities across the country are stepping up to regulate government use of these tools. In Somerville, Massachusetts, the City Council appears likely to pass a ban similar to San Francisco’s. [Gregory Barber / Wired]

A local Oakland privacy advocate told Holder and Misra why the city, and the Bay Area at large, has a particular responsibility when it comes to surveillance technology. “We’re where all this technology is being developed,” he said. “I think it’s important that—in the home of technology—that we establish these rules and guidelines.” [Sarah Holder and Tanvi Misra / City Lab]

Stories From The Appeal

Army National Guard veteran Nicholas Colbert [GoFundMe]

Veteran’s Death Highlights Inhumane Conditions in an Ohio Jail. A newly amended class-action lawsuit accuses the Cuyahoga County jail of neglect and mistreatment. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

In D.C., policing of petty offenses is largely policing of Black people: From 2013 to 2017, 86 percent of arrests in Washington, D.C., were of Black people, even though the city’s population is less than 50 percent Black. A new report by the local ACLU affiliate and a consortium called Open the Government shows that the disparities in arrests rates cover 90 percent of the District’s census tracts. The focus of the report is arrests for minor offenses, including public consumption of marijuana, violations of a noise ordinance, and having open containers of alcohol in public. Seventy-six percent of these arrests were of Black people. A staggering 99 percent of people that police arrested for gambling were Black. Another troubling arrest category was for driving with a suspended license. A full 80 percent of people charged were Black, indicating high rates of traffic stops, since license status would be unknown until someone was pulled over. An ACLU attorney told the Washington Post that the mayor’s plan for more police officers should be put off “until she determines why officers are policing the way they are.” [Peter Hermann / Washington Post]

Delaware high court disqualifies prosecutors who stole a defendant’s files and notes: The Open File blog looks at a recent decision of the Delaware Supreme Court regarding the “wildly inappropriate behavior” of prosecutors who, in 2017, “raided [a] defendant’s jail cell and took his confidential files and notes, which included trial strategy, without notifying the court or his lawyer.” A lower court dismissed Jacquez Robinson’s first-degree murder indictment on grounds of law enforcement misconduct. The state Supreme Court found a Sixth Amendment violation but reversed the lower court decision, in a 3-2 ruling, deciding against dismissing the indictment. The majority did, however, make their low opinion of the prosecution’s actions clear and “reprimanded the prosecutors, disqualified them from further participation in the case, ordered the office to destroy all trial work-product, and required the office to notify the trial court of its opinion if another instance of this misconduct was found.” [Open File]

Former Nevada attorney general supports expanded voting rights: Writing in the Nevada Independent, former three-term state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa calls on the state Senate and governor to support Assembly Bill 431, which would restore voting rights to anyone released from prison. “Nevada has one of the country’s most restrictive laws barring U.S. citizens from voting because of a past criminal conviction,” she writes. “This needs to change.” Voting matters, she says, because it “helps people engage and have a stake in their communities and civic life.” And she quotes Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers, who called it “the primary right by which other rights are protected.” He wrote: “To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.” [Frankie Sue Del Papa / Nevada Independent] See also In The Appeal: Political Report, Daniel Nichanian wrote about the latest developments in state legislative efforts to abolish or restrict felony disenfranchisement, including in Nevada.

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