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Oakland’s Facial Recognition Ban Sets Stage for Similar Laws Nationwide

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The city of Oakland took their ban on use of facial recognition software a step further Tuesday with another unanimous vote in city council. The ordinance barring municipal use of the software will be voted on once more in September and is expected to pass without objection, making Oakland the third U.S. city to pass such a ban.

The argument against use of facial recognition, especially in law enforcement, is epitomized in Oakland and it’s history of tension with police. During the initial city council vote July 16, an elderly black resident spoke directly about the underlying issue during public comment. She said:

“Every time my son and grandson step outside, they’re dealing with racial profiling. It’s not about technology. How are you going to talk about facial recognition technology when [you have] never dealt with racism and racial profiling?”

The city’s police department has been federally monitored under a Negotiated Settlement Agreement for 16 years as a result of the “Riders” scandal where a group of rogue officers were accused of framing and assaulting Oakland citizens. Although Chief Anne Kirkpatrick established a goal to reach full oversight compliance in 2019, the department is suspected of backsliding into old habits and it does not appear the court-appointed monitor will be relieved of duties any time soon.

Providing law enforcement with technology that disadvantages the public has enormous potential for misuse and harm in a city like Oakland, but they are not alone. City council members in San Francisco and Somerville, Mass. have already passed similar bans. The ease of approval and public support the three cities have shared as they passed the protective legislation has the American Civil Liberties Union encouraged about ban ordinances still to come and the possibility of more broad regulation.

Facial recognition software graphic illustration courtesy of Mike MacKenzie

Though some recognize the benefits of facial recognition software in solving crimes, many others note that the technology is imperfect and can result in false identification. Others are concerned about the “mission creep” invasion of digital privacy and advocates have been vocal about the consequences for immigrants if agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement are given such a surveillance tool. It should be noted that ICE is already using facial recognition software to mine through state driver’s license databases.

A broader law requiring government or law enforcement agencies to obtain city council approval before purchasing surveillance equipment or software has already been passed in 13 cities, making it easy to transition to a full-scale ban with the swipe of an amendment, as was the case in Oakland. The ACLU hopes the trend continues across the country and forces a national discussion on surveillance and the privacy rights of residents. As Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Commission, told the Daily Beast:

“Oakland is where we push the envelope and test things out and see if we can spread it to other jurisdictions.”


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.