On July 16, 2019, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to prevent city employees, including its police, from using or acquiring facial recognition technology. Oakland’s vote occurred just over two months after San Francisco became the first major American city to institute a similar facial recognition technology ban.
Proponents of the ban mainly cite facial recognition’s biases against minorities and the lack of regulation of facial recognition technology in general. These are certainly valid concerns.
Less attention, however, is given to the effect of the ban.
For starters, the ban highlights the lack of uniform state or federal legislation governing facial recognition technology. Indeed, according to the Oakland Police, the nearby San Mateo Police Department does utilize facial recognition software. Unless and until a total ban is in place, some police departments will have access to facial recognition technology and the biases it allegedly possesses will likely impact some individuals. This dis-uniformity should concern facial recognition ban proponents and opponents alike.
Perhaps this dis-uniformity exists because facial recognition technology illustrates the difficult balance between privacy and technology. If facial recognition correctly identifies a lost child in a crowd, or a serial criminal in the streets, that is an obvious benefit to the citizens of a particular city. But if that same technology is used to track people’s locations or to incorrectly identify someone as a criminal, then this would be an obvious detriment to the citizens of a particular city.
So while there is no dispute that facial recognition technology can prove useful in certain situations, there is no consensus on how to balance the advantages of facial recognition technology with its disadvantages. So far, Oakland and San Francisco have attempted to address this balance by banning the police and government agencies from using facial recognition technology. It will be interesting to see how other cities approach this balance, and if states will institute bans of their own.