Alameda approves facial-recognition technology policy ban, will seek ordinance

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Six Bay Area municipalities and more than a dozen nationwide have passed bans on the use of facial-recognition software. Alameda join the list on Tuesday.

Alameda beatThe Alameda City Council unanimously passed a policy against use of the invasive surveillance technology that is in its infancy, but poses thorny ethical issues because of its ability to identify residents using rapidly-improving artificial intelligence software.

The council also directed staff to formulate a more binding city ordinance to ban the future use of facial-recognition technology in Alameda, along with a data management and privacy oversight ordinance.

Privacy advocates contend the use of facial-recognition technologies gives government to greater ability to track a resident’s daily whereabouts by scanning their likeness and matching it against a database. There are also fears the technology could be used to track protesters at political rallies and individuals attending places of worship.

Facial-recognition technologies are not yet ubiquitous in American civic life, but becoming more common. Yet there have been noticeable glitches, including high percentages of misidentifications of minorities and women.

“I doesn’t work. African Americans are 5-10 times more likely to be misidentified,” Alameda Councilmember John Knox White said. “People have a right to not being harassed because some white coders forget there are other non-white male people in this world that they needed to make sure their software worked for.”

San Francisco became the vanguard for banning facial-recognition technology when it approved an ordinance last May. In the months since it has become the model for many in the region and country. Oakland followed with its own in July.

“It’s safe to say this is the new norm. This is how things should happen at the local level,” Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Committee, said of Alameda’s efforts to join the list of cities prohibiting facial-recognition software.

The policy approved last Tuesday, however, exempts Alameda Police when evidence is received from facial-recognition evidence gathered by other entities, such as the federal government.