Public Safety Committee Recommends Oakland Ban on Facial Recognition Software


The Oakland City Council’s Public Safety Committee has recommended approval of Council President Rebeca Kaplan’s proposal to ban facial recognition technology, which a researcher with Microsoft has described as “toxic,” calling for it to “be banned for almost all practical purposes.”

On June 25, on the same day as Council President Kaplan introduced the ban at Public Safety, the United Nations called for a moratorium on surveillance technology to end abuses.

Said David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, “Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly.”

Facial recognition systems rely on biased datasets with high levels of inaccuracy and lack standards around its use which has already lead to misidentification and manipulation of data, said Kaplan. The invasive nature of this technology has also resulted in government abuses including its use to persecute Muslims in China and police accountability activists in Baltimore.

“I welcome emerging technologies that improve our lives and facilitate city governance, but when multiple studies show a technology is flawed, biased, and is having unprecedented, chilling effects to our freedom of speech and religion, we have to take stand,” said Kaplan.  “It is important to build trust and good relationships between community and police and to remedy racial bias, however this flawed technology could make those problems worse. The right to privacy and the right to equal protection are fundamental and we cannot surrender them.”

Said Brian Hofer, chair for the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, “President Kaplan and the Oakland Public Safety Committee again unanimously recognized and supported its citizen privacy commissioners and constituent concerns regarding invasive technology. Face surveillance is unlike any other technology seen in our lifetime. It is incompatible with a healthy democracy, and like San Francisco, we hope the full Oakland council draws a line in the sand that this level of intrusiveness is creepy and inappropriate for Oakland.”

Data shows that this technology disproportionately misidentifies darker skinned women. In a 2018 report by the MIT Media Lab, the study concluded that face recognition systems worked best on white males and failed most often with the combination of female and dark-skin individuals with error rates of up to 34.7 percent In another test by the ACLU, Amazon’s recognition face surveillance software misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals.

The misuse and lack of guidelines around the use of this technology has also landed some police departments in hot water. In May 2019, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology (CPT) issued a report, detailing how some law enforcement agencies fed facial recognition software flawed data and warned that there are “no rules when it comes to what images police can submit to face recognition algorithms to generate investigative leads.”

“Facial recognition technology poses serious concerns, not only due to increased false positives correlating with the darkness of one’s skin, but also due to the chilling of free speech,” said Sameena Usman, Government Relations Coordinator for the SF Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Said Nathan “Nash” Sheard, Electronic Frontier Foundation, “It is encouraging to see Oakland lawmakers anticipating the surveillance problems on the horizon and taking this proactive step toward banning the use of this particularly pernicious form of surveillance. The very real impact this would have on Oakland residents safety, and ability to exercise our most fundamental freedoms greatly overshadows any potential benefits.”

Henry Gage III, Privacy commissioner, said, “Facial recognition technology is oppressive, coercive, and easily abused. We don’t need it to keep Oakland safe. Thanks to Council President Kaplan, Oakland is drawing a line in the sand, and standing up for Oaklanders’ privacy rights.”

On May 2nd at the Privacy Advisory Commission, Chairperson Brian Hofer introduced the amendment that categorically prohibits the use of facial recognition technology. The amendment passed unanimously.



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