SF’s Stop Secret Surveillance Act

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This spring, the city of San Francisco will consider Oakland Privacy’s signature surveillance transparency regulation legislation, but with a twist.

The Stop Secret Surveillance Act, introduced on January 29, 2019 by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Board of Supes prez Norman Yee, adds a total ban on the use of facial recognition software by city government.

This is the first time a SERO ordinance has pre-emptively declared that the use of a particular kind of surveillance tech is, ipso facto, unacceptable for use by the government.

Why facial recognition? The software has a troubled history of being wildly inaccurate and specifically inaccurate at identifying faces of people of color who are already subject to overpolicing and racial bias. In one experiment, an out of the box version of Amazon’s Rekognition software identified more than dozen sitting members of Congress as wanted criminals, the majority of them non-white.

But even if the technology improves, it remains one of the most invasive modes of surveillance and introduces almost unsolvable problems of data security. What happens if an office misplaces your face? There are no good answers for biometric data breaches.

Bill author Aaron Peskin stated ” “I have yet to be persuaded that there is any beneficial use of this technology that outweighs the potential for government actors to use it for coercive and oppressive ends”.

We agree. Putting this tool in the hands of law enforcement agencies with proven histories of racial profiling and implicit bias is a recipe for disaster. And with the rash of data-sharing between all levels of government and numerous private actors, our unique faces provide a pipe for the totalitarian crushing of dissent and authoritarianism from a federal government already heading in that direction way too quickly.

Numerous studies show that when people lose anonymity without due process, there is a chilling effect on creativity, innovation and our sense of personal freedom. Society becomes dumber and more fearful and self-censorship becomes the norm.

Facial recognition is a step in the direction of science fiction dystopia, which we are already getting glimpses of via China’s social credit system, which is recording behavior not only to identify individuals, but to collect patterns in order to make predictive assessments and authorize pre-crime law enforcement intervention, a la Minority Report.

Good for San Francisco for attempting to lead the way in saying enough is enough and there are limits that need to be placed on the government tracking and profiling people …. before it is too late for us to be able to decide.

San Francisco’s Stop Secret Surveillance Act will be before the Rules Committee of the Board in mid-March. We’ll need lots of people there.

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