San Francisco tweaks facial recognition ban that made it illegal for city employees to use iPhones

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In brief: The San Francisco administration’s ban on the use of facial recognition has had the surprising side effect of making devices like newer iPhones illegal to use by municipal workers. Officials are now tweaking the law to allow their use while still maintaining a strict ban on using facial recognition features.

While San Francisco may have been the first US city to place a blanket ban on facial recognition, it’s also the first to have learned that it isn’t the best of ideas. The city’s Board of Supervisors wanted to ensure accountability around the use of surveillance technology and facial recognition, but that inadvertently extended to outlaw the use of Face ID for iPhone users.

According to a report from Wired, San Francisco officials realized that a lot of city-issued iPhones were now illegal to use even with Face ID disabled, so they scrambled to amend the law last week. The changes still apply to the use of Apple’s facial recognition feature as well as the alternatives, but the purchase and use of mobile devices that have it is now allowed.

Municipal agencies can now make the case that a particular device is the only viable solution that covers their needs, and workers will have to turn off facial recognition and use passcodes.

Other cities like Somerville and Oakland have adopted similar bans that now include a list of exemptions for personal phones used by municipal workers. As more cities follow suit, they’re also using more careful language in the new legislation. The American Civil Liberties Union says it’s reaching out to cities like Alameda in California to help them through the process.

It’s worth noting that San Francisco city officials were previously in the dark about the facial recognition tech used by the Police Department, including a 90-day mugshot search system that started in January 2019. Law enforcement agencies can now request exceptions, which leads to an increase in transparency about their use of it.

This also illustrates the challenges of adopting new technologies without creating serious privacy risks. In August, a facial recognition test mistakenly identified 26 California legislators as criminals, so a blanket ban may have been a good idea. The technology is getting cheaper, but it’s still far from being accurate enough. On the one hand, the government wants to speed up its adoption at airports. On the other, the potential for abuse by the FBI, DOJ, and DEA is a major source of lawsuits and privacy headaches.

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