The San Francisco’s Facial Recognition Ban and the questions it raises
//14th May 2019: San Francisco, long at the heart of the technology revolution, took a stand against potential abuse on Tuesday by banning the use of facial recognition software by the police and other agencies.//
The word that came to my mind when I read about the above law (ordinance) was “Hypocrisy”. Silicon Valley is where most of the technology used in surveillance gets invented by tech giants and exported worldwide – now the elected officials of the same community are saying it may be harmful and are enacting a ban for it – I am confused to say the least!!!
I subscribe to the idea that technology advancements and market forces are always better than enacting more laws and increasing the scope of Government. And technology once invented can never be put back. By making a technology (think AI, Facial Recognition or Automation) illegal, you will be pushing the usage to the underground, where it is not transparent anymore, and, will only enable antisocial elements.
But, listening to this podcast –TwiT Triangulation 400, I am contemplating on the issues of privacy & humanity w.r.t. technologies like facial recognition which bring unprecedented scale. The guest was Mr Brian Hofer, the man who worked on the law for San Francisco’s Facial Recognition Ban.
The activists who oppose surveillance technologies, often, quote the horrors from Hitler’s Germany when IBM worked for the Nazi in identifying Jews from census data, or China’s actions against its own Muslim population (the Uighurs) by using facial scans and AI and the Brainwash’s dataset being used by the Chinese – Brainwash was a café in San Francisco which had sold its live streaming camera’s footage of customers. No doubt these were horrible, but technology will have and always be used for both the good and the bad. The good should outweigh the bad – like when it can stop a mass murderer or identify a calamity sooner and so on – the lives saved will be worth the risk.
“provides government with unprecedented power to track people going about their daily lives. That’s incompatible with a healthy democracy.”
– Matt Cagle, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Northern California.
But in the interview, Mr Hofer puts forward compelling arguments on why he (strongly) objects to all forms of mass surveillance.
He says all laws are written to enable (mass) surveillance start with a noble use-cause, along the lines of crime-busting and their written scope will be to limit usage. Unfortunately, human history has shown that once a tool has been available, its usage gets expanded to use-cases not foreseen in the beginning. For example, the number plate recognition technology when started was to do congestion tax and for crime-busting, but is now routinely used even for administrative and tax purposes by state departments.
Mr Hofer doesn’t underestimate technology, he agrees that the false positives and error rates with facial recognition will come down and soon they will be perfect, but that is not the issue.
His main argument can be summed by his own words “any tool can be used for the good or the bad. the problem with a tool like facial recognition is that it is so versatile that the use, never stops with one or two specific uses. it will never stop. people are ignoring history, mission creep is a reality, it always has, it has happened with all other surveillance equipments. Somehow this time we (Americans) are going to be different and will be handling mass surveillance differently than what history has shown is not acceptable.”
Also, there is the problem with storage being cheap the collected data are being stored forever. The track record of private companies and governments to keep this data saves are poor – data leakage is common. Then there is the bigger problem of datasets getting collated – the sum of inconspicuous individual data points can turn out to be quite revealing and dangerous too.
These are all valid points and can’t be dismissed easily. We need to think about these seriously, I have started to.