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San Francisco proposal would ban government facial recognition use in the city (theverge.com)
194 points by aaronbrethorst 47 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments



The third time my car was broken into (to steal - no joke - a crappy stock car stereo from the 90s), I'd have voted for mandatory cameras and facial recognition on every street corner. Maybe sentry guns too.

Instead I moved out of SF. Good luck, folks.


I still live here. Yes, we need a severe and sustained crackdown to change the dynamics in this city. But some things are harder to undo than others, and major investments like facial recognition would live on indefinitely even if/when crime declined.

Having said that, the San Francisco government has demonstrated beyond all doubt that they are incapable of carrying out even basic functions, let alone implementing a brand new, cutting edge facial recognition system. So a law like this is pointless to begin with.


Eh, it’s a future-proofing measure in case that some hyper-competent municipal regime comes to power that not only makes MUNI run on time, but also more sinister schemes.


Are you saying that wealthiest state in America, the one that also houses the largest tech companies in the world, doesn't have the competence to buy facial recognition software from amazon?


They have the competence to spend a lot of money on things but not so much competence to do something useful with the stuff they bought.


Fast forward a few months, criminals are just wearing ski masks when they steal cars, and you’ve given up a significant amount of your privacy for absolutely zero benefit. Not a good plan, in my opinion.


Its a much better idea to fix the fact that so many people are in such a shitty situation that they are willing to steal a worthless radio.


I really don’t think the people breaking into cars can ever be spun into protagonists, of any story. Advocating for them harms the message of helping the downtrodden and treating them humanely, because it seems totally out of touch with the emotional impact of totally gratuitous property crime on its victims.


Wrong, if you're struggling to survive, "stealing" from the comfortable is absolutely morally right.

The fact that people are forced into such awful situations strengthens the message of helping the downtrodden: Everybody is entitled to the necessities of life, so as to never be placed in such a predicament.


A lot of those folks who are committing petty crimes aren’t downtrodden struggling to survive though. Many are junkies and a class of permanently homeless that refuse help/services and refuse to rejoin society. Why should law abiding citizens have to bear their costs?


>Why should law-abiding citizens have to bear their costs?

You seem to negate the fact that the costs are burdened by law-abiding citizens to have them in jail/prison, anyway.

Certainly, the costs of social structures for those people are far less than a for-profit system of incarceration; which, as it is currently structured, only benefits from a minimum volume of people being maintained in the incarceration system, itself?

You admit that there's different classes of people who commit the petty crimes, so that - in and of itself - demonstrates that each class would require specific redress for their situation.

Finally, since they are petty crimes, in and of themselves, wouldn't facial recognition be rough the equivalent of dropping a bomb on an ant hill? The scope of the effect far-outweighs the supposed benefits.


> You seem to negate the fact that the costs are burdened by law-abiding citizens to have them in jail/prison, anyway.

There is a cost yes, but the possibility of jail and all of its restrictions is also a big disincentive for would-be criminals. Right now, the ability of this subset of folks to live in SF on their own terms, appropriating public property, committing crimes, and not facing consequences, is a big incentive for them to become more brazen, and for others like them to come to SF to live that lifestyle (since they would face no consequences).

My point is that it isn't necessarily true that the same number would be jailed, and so the cost tradeoffs are unclear.

> Certainly, the costs of social structures for those people are far less than a for-profit system of incarceration

I'd need to see data on that. But I also think we could reduce the standards at jails to reduce costs further, if needed. And the additional benefit of containment has many benefits that confer utility on other citizens (not having to constantly be alert or think about the heightened risk of crime).

> Finally, since they are petty crimes, in and of themselves, wouldn't facial recognition be rough the equivalent of dropping a bomb on an ant hill? The scope of the effect far-outweighs the supposed benefits.

I feel like this is implicitly adopting a fallacious slippery slope argument. I'm talking about using facial recognition to more regularly identify/track/detain criminals. This would be accomplished by utilizing feeds from public spaces, where it is already legal to record, and simply being more efficient in the processing and analysis of those feeds, which humans already are able to access and view manually.

In the same way that our _existing_ police forces have not turned into some dystopian social negative, the addition of facial recognition to their tools is unlikely to turn into the same. I agree that there is a line that can be crossed, and we should be cognizant of that, but am just saying that I don't think we are there. In adopting facial recognition for local law enforcement, we wouldn't be changing the laws or expanding the legal rights that govern how police operate or removing the processes/avenues against police abuse. We're simply using an existing technology to make them more effective.


Not sure about breaking into cars specifically but the recent popular video where the former NASA engineer designed a device to film people stealing packages off of doorsteps seems to both confirm your statement about not being downtrodden but dispute the idea that thieves are homeless or junkies. Almost all of the people that he caught on film stealing in that video were normal looking middle class people that had cars, apartments, houses and didn’t seem to have any mental illness other than a complete lack of empathy for others.


Dealing with drug addiction isn't a struggle?


It might be a struggle at some stage of addiction, where personal choice is less accessible. But at some earlier stage, it is a personal choice to experiment with hard drugs in the first place, and there is individual agency and responsibility associated with that choice.

Coddling addicts (by possibly excusing/overlooking any associated criminal actions) because it is a struggle in a later stage of addiction seems like a removal of the disincentives that keep people from going down that path in the first place. Also, I really am not for social support or a different (relaxed) enforcement of the law for addicts _above_ the protection of law-abiding citizens and their property.


What's your address? Asking for a friend.


> a worthless radio

In 1999, I sold the stock radio from my 2000 Dodge Neon on eBay for $40!


A time traveling radio does seem pretty novel, to be fair.


Weirdly enough, the 2000 Dodge Neon was available for sale from early-to-mid 1999, so parent commenter may not be mistaken!


> Weirdly enough, the 2000 Dodge Neon was available for sale from early-to-mid 1999, so parent commenter may not be mistaken!

This is correct :) I bought the 2000 model in October or November of '99.


So they have to wear the ski mask all the way to cover (a private place without cameras), increasing their vulnerable time (time they're easily recognizable as performing a criminal act). That sounds like a big security win.



I can already smell the studies about how that'll be mostly bunk science in a few years, just like hand writing recognition or fiber analysis now.


It has legitimate biometrics included like bone lengths. It could determine, e.g., which gang member should cops focus on.


I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I see your point. There’s a point where people’s security concerns start to override other moral programming they’re running. This isn’t really that profound of an observation; it’s perfectly rational. City and state leaders should recognize that reality, and react accordingly. If it gets to the point where the security situation is so bad (I don’t live in SF, but am there often for work) that otherwise well meaning people entertain mass surveillance as a solution it might be too late.


Maybe some amount law breaking is necessary for social change. If everyone followed marijuana laws, there wouldn't be a push for state level legalization. If no cars are broken into because of a perfect facial recognition system, then there might not be a strong motive to fix the homeless situation in San Francisco.

I am sure this idea is not new, but I think it is important to keep it in the conversation as the number and capability of sensors dramatically increases over the next decade.


> a strong motive to fix the homeless situation in San Francisco.

"Fix" has a lot of potential meanings. If your goal is a more humane solution this is going to backfire. If the majority of the city becomes incensed at the homeless because of crime and security concerns they'll be hardened and in favor of harsher, crueler solutions rather than compassionate ones.

The most successful protests (I'm thinking civil rights movement) were peaceful and didn't involve harming people.


This seems like a situation where a crackdown would be likely to produce positive effects, honestly.

It's one thing to enforce some kind of dystopia, but locking up people for breaking into cars seems like it shouldn't be a particularly radical proposal.


First its locating people breaking in to cars and now the infrastructure is set up its easy to justify it being used to track problem people everywhere they go and then justified to track everyone everywhere they go to identify problem people,.


Fix in the context of perfect facial recognition surveillance means being able to locate and arrest all people that commit a crime. People who are not driven to crime because they can afford a financially comfortable and privileged lifestyle will not feel the effects of poverty and homelessness in this scenario. It's like putting a band aid on a festering wound.

On the other hand, if we are not able to locate and arrest whoever defecated on the sidewalk, maybe we'll resort to building more toilets.

edit: I have faith that San Francisco is progressive enough to not allow widespread harsh and cruel punishment for the less fortunate based on group association.


I wholeheartedly disagree. More toilets won't fix the problem -- I suspect they could even potentially worsen the issue by making the city a more attractive place for the beyond-hope.

Fixing the mental heath system that Reagan dismantled would be a far better approach, and a persistent camera + facial recognition system could allow for more effective identification of those that would benefit from commitment.


The ACLU, psychiatrists, and other reformers are more culpable than Reagan. Deinstitutionalization started long before 1980. See, e.g.,

  https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/30/science/how-release-of-mental-patients-began.html
Some amount of reform was needed, but the deinstitutionalization that occurred was too extreme, too rapid, and lacked adequate backstops. Politicians were just doing what they were told by lawyers and psychiatrists, and they were eager to comply because it meant huge cuts in spending.


So you are saying anyone who can't afford the insane price of having a house with a toilet in SF is mentally ill?


If they remain in SF, yes. Departure is a reasonable option.


San Francisco's policy is basically to leave the gushing wounds alone, and instead think hopeful thoughts about how we really should be eradicating all disease.

True, that would be the real solution, and then we wouldn't need those pesky bandages. No pathogens in the air, no risk of infection. Leaving wounds open also helps bystanders feel the problem, and probably motivates some to go into medical research or to work harder at it.

But "visible infections will motivate the end of disease" is a batshit insane public health program, and "car break-ins will motivate the end of capitalism" works about as well as an anti-poverty strategy.


walking down streets in SF seeing the piles of broken glass every few car spaces showing someone broke into a bunch of cars recently was really eye opening how bad it is.

Seems quickly solvable with a few honeypot cars. AFAIK isn't not entrapment if you don't ask them to do it. I imagine it's a relatively small number of people doing it. A month or two of honeypot cars would clear up that issue


Somebody once broke into my car in the East Cut and stole a bottle of water.


As others mention, facial recognition won't help in this case (because masks). I'm partial to sentry guns, though.


You should try tinting your windows.


I think that’s illegal in California.

But also, that would mean you could assume in a row of cars, the ones with tinted windows were most worth breaking into (which would also defeat the traditional “keep expensive things out of sight” mechanism).


I imagine it's only legal up until a certain visibility is crossed. Usually tint is measured as VLT (visible light transfer), and the lower the percentage the more dark the tint. Most states allow tint down to 30/35% VLT, which is alright but nothing special.

My current car had really dark tint (maybe 5-15% VLT) when I bought it, and didn't really notice because I was interested in the vehicle. After I bought it, I realized that the tint isn't even legal. However, I've had the car for several years now and haven't been pulled over for it, and also haven't been broken into. Truthfully, I think tint is a detractor, because the purp can't see much, so they don't chance a B&E for nothing. I've become a fan of dark tint and I'm planning on putting it on all my vehicles.


But will it yet allow private facial recognition? If so that’s a loophole. Oh, we don’t do FR ourselves, we contract that out!

FR isn’t bad in and of itself. What is needed is regulation governing that data.


If it is available, it will be used. Either within stretched legal frameworks, or through illegal surveillance.

Not that we can do much about it. It is going to happen eventually .


“Eye witness put a person in the area and we just looked at the footage for that time frame”


exactly - all the bigTechCos will likely have it, of they dont already...


Some of comments here are suggesting that facial recognition wouldn't be necessary if San Francisco would just fix the root cause of its crime problem.

There is a common pattern I've noticed in discussions about San Francisco. Person A: San Francisco should implement <solution that provides relief in the near-future>. Person B: That's just a bandaid over the problem. It's better to just fix <problem that has plagued humanity for all of history>.

Usually, the solution to <problem that has always plagued humanity> requires large changes to our economic system or society that would take decades, if not lifetimes. I'm not opposed to such changes, but it seems naive to me to not do quality-of-life improvements because they would be unnecessary if our society was massively different.

If this is how the city is managed, it's no surprise that it's a mess.


SF is broken because they refuse to punish bad behavior. Pising and pooping on streets and sidewalks. Breaking into cars. Using heroin and meth in public. Disposing of needles wherever you feel like. Setting up a tent in the park. Most other cities would stop this from happening but SF won't.


Why wouldn't they punish such behavior? That sounds ridiculous


Some people believe mentally ill homeless drug addicts are the tragic, powerless victims of a society which has made housing and medical care unaffordable and deprived them of political representation; that putting a homeless person in jail guaranteeing them food and a bed for a week is unlikely to be much of a deterrent; and that the things that would be an effective deterrent are inhumane.

Personally I don't agree, but I can see why a person would think that way.


This seems like a really bad time to propose something like this. Parts of SF look like a mad max wasteland and they really have blown it when it comes to crime, vagrancy, and blight. It really seems like facial recognition could help catch criminals and put them away for once.


The city knows who the criminals are. The district attorney drops the cases, you can have your open air drug bazaar or stolen bike shanty town in broad daylight.


When I worked in the Mission we watched a small homeless encampment run a bicycle chop shop wide open in broad daylight for over a month. Police regularly came by, nothing more than an old tarp was used to try hide the bicycle operation.

Increased surveillance would have made zero difference. For whatever reason the activity was simply tolerated.


Because it is a waste of time and money for the police to do anything, if the DA is going to drop the case. It is a waste of time for the DA to do anything, if the judge will drop the case. It is a waste of time for the judge to do anything, if the prisons are full, expensive and downsizing such that these kind of offenders are not exceptional enough and therefore right back on the street.


So, private use and private security agencies are free and clear. Sounds like a nice contract for a security firm to land with various loose neighborhood associations, shopping district management and pretty much the exact private hands you do not want developing large scale FR.


I for one want criminals apprehended. This is more of the typical San Francisco hoopla.


I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear


If the police had one's detailed driving history including speed limits and how fast one was driving at any given moment then how many speeding tickets would one get?

Even someone who obeys the speed limit would get dozens of tickets per year.


How? Assuming the information is accurate, how would someone who didn't exceed the speedlimit get dozens of tickets per year?


Given people seem super pro “catch the criminals” because facial recognition:

1. It can only identify people it already has facial recognition for. So that means people who are already in the system - who you already have fingerprints as well.

2. Can facial recognition provide cause for a warrant? If it can, what happens if its accuracy is biased (see the numerous studies showing “accurate” facial recognition systems are in the order of 15%-20% less accurate at identifying women of color than white men). Seems like that would be reason to get the warrant dismissed and subsequent evidence removed - based on my years of legal experience watching tv ;)

3. Can this be used to identify wanted people randomly on the street, or is it just retroactive (eg there was a crime, identify the person in the picture). The latter is significantly less of a problem (imo) than continuous live identification.

4. How long is this data archived? Who is responsible when it leaks?


I'm against this, but not for the typical reason of privacy or worry of government overuse. What I'm worried about more than either of those is the growing prevalence of GAN created video. As the outputs of GAN become more realistic and indistinguishable from the real thing, having a facial recognition system to be able to prove that you were or were not in some place at a certain time is going to be integral in fighting off the fake videos that are going to swarm us all soon.

What I'd rather see is twofold:

1.) A right to wear a mask. Both legally and for it to become socially acceptable. We should have a right to protect our privacy, when we want it.

2.) Open data when it comes to this. Otherwise I feel that power will centralize with governments and larger private orgs. By opening the data set, the system can be used for good. This would have to include some sort of authentication system as well - possibly something like 2fa where an alert comes to your phone that you have to authorize before an entity can query your facial recognition stats.


and whats to stop the federal government from doing this. At this point people need to accept everything is being recording in public.


My thoughts exactly. The proposed ordinance would only apply to "city departments", so the feds could do whatever they want.

Given my vague recollections of the Supremacy Clause [1] of the Constitution, I don't think a local ordinance like this could have legal effect on the feds, even if it purported to.

1: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/supremacy_clause


It would be a legal battle for sure, but there's a chance that nullification could win [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nullification_(U.S._Constituti...


City full of tech companies working on facial recognition, bans facial recognition being used on it's residents


umm..so no more iPhones????


Dose the iPhone count as government facial recognition?


It does if a department issues iPhones to employees. Or Windows laptops with "Windows Hello" logins, or Samsung phones with facial unlock features, etc. It doesn't specify if "face recognition" includes iris and retina scans.


But that would only ban those iPhones not iPhones in general.


It does if you believe Apple was infiltrated by NSA agents.




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