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Technology

Oakland, California Bans Facial Recognition

Oakland follows San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts in banning the facial recognition technology because of possible misuse.
Oakland, California Bans Facial Recognition
Image credit: via PCMag
Guest Writer
Entrepreneur, speaker and writer.
3 min read
This story originally appeared on PCMag

Oakland, California has become the third city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition in public places, following San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts which imposed their own restrictions in May and June, respectively.

As reported by Vice, any facial recognition -- defined as "an automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying or verifying an individual based on an individual's face" -- cannot be acquired, obtained, requested, or accessed.

It replaces a law from 2018 that required city staff members to secure permission from the chair of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission before getting funds for surveillance technology, including those from the state or the federal government.

Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Council President, wrote a public memo (PDF) outlining her concerns. The memo states that the technology could lead to a "misuse of force, false incarceration, and minority-based persecution," citing specifically a study that showed how this technology "negatively and disproportionately misidentifies darker skinned women."

While advocates of facial recognition have argued that it's simply a tool used by law enforcement, and that human police officers still make the final decisions, the memo highlights numerous instances where police officers did not take adequate measures to corrobotate the results of their identification system.

Examples of these instances include the New York Police Department apprehending a suspect and placing him in a lineup solely on the basis of a face recognition search, sheriffs in Florida who arrested a suspect based on facial recognition while the "only corroboration was the officers' review of the photograph, presented as the 'most likely' match," and a Metro Police Department officer in Washington, D.C. printing out a "possible match" from a facial recognition system and presenting it to the witness for confirmation.

Kaplan's memo ends stating that: "As the technology behind these face recognition systems continues to improve, it is natural to assume that the investigative leads become more accurate. Yet without rules governing what can -- and cannot -- be submitted as a probe photo, this is far from a guarantee. Garbage in will still lead to garbage out."

In a report (PDF), Oakland's Chief of Police Anne Kirkpatrick said that while the Oakland Police department does not have any facial recognition technology and does not plan to acquire it, an outright ban could hinder law enforcement. "Staff does believe that Oakland's current surveillance technology provides adequate thresholds for reviewing any possible future requests to test or purchase [facial recognition technology]," Kirkpatrick said.

Much like criminal lineups, which have had their reliability questioned due to both eyewitnesses accuracy and the decisions of the police, basing arrests purely on facial identification can be concerning. There have been a number of occasions where facial recognition technology has been biased against people with darker skin, because the technology is only as good as the data used to train it. The New York Times reports how a study found one widely-used data set was estimated to be "more than 75 percent male and more than 80 percent white."

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