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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Facial recognition banned in San Francisco

Facial recognition is increasingly adopted for a variety of purposes: unlocking one’s phone, access control, time and attendance, targeted marketing, banking, public security, etc. While there is no doubt facial recognition provides convenience to a number of applications, it is increasingly used for law enforcement, triggering the risk of a mass population registration. At the same time, it raises concerns from the human rights activists and more generally from all the privacy-conscious; critics of facial recognition technology argue that it is not 100% reliable and that it infringes on people’s privacy and liberty.

With a recent vote, the city of San Francisco has become the first in the world to ban the use of facial recognition by local agencies, such as the city’s transport authority or law enforcement. In addition, the city administrators will have to approve any new plan to build any surveillance technology and will investigate on the efficiency of already installed devices.

Of course, the decision is commended by ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights organizations. Also, XRDS, the magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), recently published a column titled “Facial Recognition is the Plutonium of AI” in which they say, “It’s dangerous, racializing, and has few legitimate uses; facial recognition needs regulation and control on par with nuclear waste.” Leaders of the corporate world, such as Brad Smith, President and General Counsel of Microsoft, who called for both vigorous regulation of and heightened corporate social responsibility toward facial recognition systems, also express concerns about facial recognition technologies.

In a recent case, a New York student sued Apple for US$ 1 billion (EUR 893 million), claiming the company’s facial-recognition software falsely linked him to a theft worth US$ 1,200 (EUR 1070) from an Apple Store in Boston. While the origin of the mix up was supposedly Apple facial recognition software, the police was quick to find out the student they arrested looked totally different from the images. Afterwards, Apple said they do not use face recognition technology in their stores.

San Francisco ban on facial recognition will not apply to security measures at the city’s airport or sea port, as they are run by federal, not local, agencies.

Airports and airlines worldwide are increasingly using facial recognition, to make the whole passenger process more secure and smoother at the same time. For instance, JetBlue has set up a partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that allows them to use facial recognition as the only credential to board a place: passengers no longer need neither a boarding pass nor a passport. Also, JFK airport, in New York City, is implementing biometric boarding in its new Terminal One, home of Lufthansa, Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Airlines, … The system, developed with Vision-Box, will allow passengers to board airplanes using biometric eGates, which will recognize them by their face.

At the same time, the US DHS, Department of Homeland Security, says that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is planning to implement biometric exit technology in almost all commercial airports in the next four years. The technology, which is already used for passengers departing the US in 15 airports, has led to finding 7,000 travelers to have overstayed their visa, out of over two million passengers controlled.

In China, the government does not face the same hurdles to generalize facial recognition. The technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous as cities, such as Jinan, Shandong, are adopting facial recognition as a means of ticketing for their subway systems. The government is under scrutiny as it is said to be using gate-like scanning systems to record biometric three-dimensional images, as well as smartphone fingerprints, of Muslims living in the country's Xinjiang province, says ZDNet. According to a recently published Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, data from these data doors is sent to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a database that centralizes information from different sources, and one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang, adds ZDNet.

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