Oakland, California Bans Facial Recognition Technology


Oakland, California has banned facial recognition technology, citing the potential for bias and erosion of privacy rights. The City Council voted unanimously in favor of the ban, joining cities including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.

In a memo released earlier this summer, Council President Rebecca Kaplan noted that facial recognition technology tends to negatively identify people of color which could result in a higher rate of prosecution. Facial recognition technology has also misidentified people of color at a higher rate. The memo also cited the misuse and ethical concerns surrounding law enforcement’s handling of facial recognition data.

“More recently concerns about privacy have been exacerbated by questions into how
international, federal, and local government bodies use this data. In Baltimore, police
agencies used face recognition technology to target activists in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s
death, and the Chinese government is currently using face recognition software in the
persecution of its Muslim minority population. This week, Detroit’s face recognition system is
under scrutiny, the placement of cameras near abortion clinics, and more frightening, there
has been a slew of hackings, including most recently thousands of facial scans that were stolen
from a subcontractor of the US Customs and Enforcement Agency,” the memo said.

As the use of facial recognition technology grows privacy advocates as well as civil rights supporters, have called for broader discussions around the ethics of the technology.

Several cities are currently considering measures that would ban the use of facial recognition technology. However, they may run into workarounds like the one uncovered by Slate over the weekend. Even in cities where law enforcement has backed away from using facial recognition software, police are pulling data from devices including video doorbells. Indeed, Amazon is promoting such use of its Ring doorbells which give users the ability to monitor who is on their doorstep without opening the door. This is a more insidious form of surveillance and one that is likely to make it in through the back door, as bans on government use of facial recognition technology are less likely to deal with voluntary information sharing between private citizens and police. As the Slate piece notes, encouraging voluntary information sharing can be a way for police to surveil citizens while avoiding politically charged conversations over just buying facial recognition software outright.