About the San Francisco Ban on Face Recognition Technology

You are being photographed far more often than you realize.

You are being photographed far more often than you realize.

The city of San Francisco recently banned the use of face recognition technology by the police and other government agencies. This decision is being talked about a lot and it’s easy to see why. The technology has been growing in popularity in recent years and San Francisco is the first major US city to block its use. Although Silicon Valley tends to be an enthusiastic adopter of new technology, face recognition technology has been plagued with accusations of racial bias and low accuracy in addition to the “Black Mirror”-esque introduction of mass surveillance into our society.

So what do we think of all this at Blink Identity?

We think what San Francisco is doing is great. Mass surveillance of crowds of people without probable cause feels wrong and it’s obvious to most people how it could be abused. To us, this isn't about face recognition technology - any technology that is used for mass surveillance is wrong. People are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty and this seems like an unreasonable search. (Standard caveat - we are not lawyers.)

When small GPS trackers first became available, the police started using them. In 2012 that practice was challenged in court. The police claimed that putting GPS trackers on cars wasn't any different from following a car, which they are legally allowed to do. The courts said it was fine for them to follow one car, but that the GPS tracker technology allowed them to track ALL of the cars, which was unconstitutional search. The police now have to get a warrant to put a GPS tracker on a car. More recently, the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a valid search warrant before obtaining location data on a suspect from their cell phone.

We think the parallels are clear. It’s possible that the government could use face recognition technology with a warrant but there isn’t any way of tracking one specific person without first tracking everyone and searching through them to find the person you are interested in. If you are using this technology in crowds, then you are photographing people without their knowledge, consent or probable cause.

It’s important to understand the difference between mass surveillance and a privacy preserving, voluntary and opt-in technology like Blink Identity. Technology currently exists that can collect iris images and identify people from at least six feet away (probably more). We already have technology that collect fingerprints from a considerable distance. It’s not about faces, it’s about tracking large numbers of people without their knowledge and without probable cause.

With the ban, people can still unlock their iPhones with their face and they can still participate in voluntary and transparent systems like Blink Identity.