San Francisco puts the brakes on facial recognition surveillance

The City of San Francisco has passed new rules which will significantly curb the abilities of public sector organisations to purchase and utilise facial recognition technologies.

Opinions on newly emerging surveillance technologies have varied drastically, with some pointing to the benefits of safety and efficiency for intelligence and police forces, while others have bemoaned the crippling potential it could have on civil liberties and privacy.

The new rules in San Francisco do not necessarily ban surveillance technologies entirely, but barriers to demonstrate justification have been significantly increased.

“The success of San Francisco’s #FacialRecognition ban is owed to a vast grassroots coalition that has advocated for similar policies around the Bay Area for years,” said San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

The legislation will come into effect in 30 days’ time. From that point, no city department or contracting officer will be able to purchase equipment unless the Board of Supervisors has appropriated funds for such acquisition. New processes will also be introduced including a surveillance technology policy for the department which meet the demands of the Board, as well as a surveillance impact report.

The department would also have to produce an in-depth annual report which would detail:

  • How the technology was used
  • Details of each instance data was shared outside the department
  • Crime statistics

The impact report will have to include a huge range of information including all the forward plans on logistics, experiences from other government departments, justification for the expenditure and potential impact on privacy. The department may also have to consult public opinion, while it will have to create concrete policies on data retention, storage, reporting and analysis.

City officials are making it as difficult as possible to make use of such technologies, and considering the impact or potential for abuse, quite rightly so. As mentioned before, this is not a ban on next-generation surveillance technologies, but an attempt to ensure deployment is absolutely necessary.

As mentioned before, the concerns surround privacy and potential violations of civil liberties, which were largely outlined in wide-sweeping privacy reforms set forward by California Governor Jerry Brown last year. The rules are intended to spur on an ‘informed public debate’ on the potential impacts on the rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution.

Aside from the potential for abuse, it does appear City Official and privacy advocates are concerned over the impact on prejudices based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, income level, sexual orientation, or political perspective. Many analytical technologies are based on the most likely scenario, leaning on stereotypical beliefs and potentially increasing profiling techniques, effectively removing impartiality of viewing each case on its individual factors.

While the intelligence and policing community will most likely view such conditions as a bureaucratic mess, it should be absolutely be viewed as necessary. We’ve already seen the implementation of such technologies without public debate and scrutiny, a drastic step considering the potential consequences.

Although the technology is not necessarily new, think of border control at airports, perhaps the rollout in China has swayed opinion. When an authoritarian state like China, where political and societal values conflict that of the US, implements such technologies some will begin to ask what the nefarious impact of deployment actually is.

In February, a database emerged demonstrating China has used a full suite of AI tools to monitor its Uyghur population in the far west of the country. This could have been a catalyst for the rules.

That said, the technology is also far from perfect. Police forces across the UK has been trialling facial recognition and data analytics technologies with varied results. At least 53 UK local councils and 45 of the country’s police forces are heavily relying on computer algorithms to assess the risk level of crimes against children as well as people cheating on benefits.

In May last year, the South Wales Police Force has to defend its decision to trial NEC facial recognition software during the 2017 Champions League Final as it is revealed only 8% of the identifications proved to be accurate.

It might be viewed by some as bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy but considering the potential for abuse and damage to privacy rights, such administrative barriers are critical. More cities should take the same approach as San Francisco.

San Francisco building own Open Access Fibre network for $1.9bn

A report has emerged from City Hall in San Francisco which assesses the final details for the city to build its own fibre network, passing 100% of homes and businesses, for $1.9 billion.

While there will be likely be hundreds of conversations around the US on how fibre can be delivered to the home, most of which will be nothing more than blue-sky thinking, this is one we like. The city already has the appetite for fibre after false-promises from Google Fiber last year, and the attitude of the ISPs when it comes to net neutrality might force the hand of the city. $1.9 billion is also not a huge amount when you actually think about it.

This would certainly be an approach to connectivity which would raise some eye brows, and one which could start a trend across the states. This would be a network which is designed and managed on principles which are governed by the opinions of the local population not federal regulation. The city has promised it will close the digital divide, ensure net neutrality principles are maintained and privacy concerns are addressed.

Even the emergence of such a scheme perhaps demonstrates how bored the US people are of the current telco industry. Service is highly prioritised in the urban or affluent areas, it is expensive, customer support is usually poor and fibre rollout plans are staggering. To ensure fairness throughout the city, a free Wifi service would be offered in public areas, while low-income residents would qualify for subsidies to make connectivity more affordable

Add into the mix that the people of California are not happy with the way net neutrality rules are being relegated to the footnotes, and the idea of a publicly funded and owned network becomes more attractive. State Senator Scott Weiner has already introduced Senate Bill 822, which aims to re-establish net neutrality rules across the state, though by owning its own network San Francisco would be able to enforce its own governance policies on ISPs.

The network would essentially function in similar manner to Openreach in the UK. The infrastructure would be owned and managed by the city, who would provide an ‘OTT’ service to the ISPs over the same lines. A two-tier data highway would not be allowed, and ISPs would also be forced to request ‘opt-ins’ from customers for any data collection or dissemination. It sounds like a great idea for those who oppose the current path of the FCC.

The only concern here would be the price. In the telco world, $1.9 billion is not a huge amount any more, but when it is public funds it is a monstrous amount of cash. However, the report notes that the benefits of a full fibre network should outweigh the investment. The digital economy is booming in California already and a full-fibre network would only accelerate this momentum in San Francisco. Add in the idea that 12% of the city lack internet access at home, a number which raises to 15% when you measure public school students alone, and the merit of the scheme becomes more promising. There are still a huge number of questions to be answered, for example whether it would be a lit or dark fibre network or the nitty gritty details of funding, but progress is being made.

The ISPs will of course not like this idea, as it creates a level playing field (everyone will use the same infrastructure) which encourages a pricing race to the bottom and forces the development of a customer service environment which actually cares about the customer. Genuine value adds will also have to be considered as holding customers to ransom as the only provider in an area will not exist anymore. You should expect some sort of lobbying or legal action to disrupt development.

That said, looks like the balance of power will be rightly back in the hands of the purchaser. You can read the full report here.