San Francisco’s Safety and Freedom Imbalance
By Joel P. Engardio
Anything goes on San Francisco sidewalks as evidenced by the fact that we have the highest rate of property crime of the nation’s most populated cities. Yet the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering legislation to significantly limit the ability of law enforcement to fight crime with video cameras. It also bans any use of facial recognition technology by the city.
Concerned residents should contact their supervisor and ask them to rethink this legislation.
The so-called “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance” might sound good to a public that is more concerned than ever about privacy. And we can’t pretend that facial recognition technology is perfect, especially when it has trouble properly identifying people of color. The American Civil Liberties Union found that Amazon’s software mismatched 28 members of Congress with mug shots in a criminal database. The FBI’s facial recognition technology had a 14 percent failure rate as of 2016, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report.
But is a ban the best action? Technology is always improving. Refinements that address today’s shortcomings could make facial recognition a useful security tool when deployed in conjunction with well-crafted public policy. A ban precludes any thoughtful regulation: It’s just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The proposed legislation also effectively keeps the city from using traditional security video. The expense and burden of the required audits and reports — not to mention approval from the full Board of Supervisors — would make it nearly impossible to set up a city-operated security camera in San Francisco.
The proposed ordinance is rooted in good intentions, however. San Francisco champions personal freedom over government control like nowhere else because San Franciscans don’t want to compromise civil liberties in the quest for public safety. For example, the People’s Republic of China relies on video surveillance in a way that San Francisco could never tolerate.
Yet we must find a balance between Beijing and San Francisco extremes to enjoy both safety and freedom. This proposed legislation will create a cascade of unintended consequences, given the importance of video footage in crime cases.
Valuable video footage, such as that which captured the 2017 murder of photographer Ed French on Twin Peaks, could determine justice. Such footage might not exist in future cases if the ordinance curtails the use of city-operated cameras.
What about cameras on private homes and businesses? The proposed law requires the city develop a use policy and receive Board of Supervisors approval before “entering into agreement with a non-city entity to acquire, share, or otherwise use surveillance technology.” This broad language could restrict the city from using information provided by an outside source that doesn’t adhere to our policies or uses technology we ban.
The greater danger is in the difficulty San Francisco would have partnering with other law enforcement agencies. The politically charged Board of Supervisors would have to approve cooperation. The law has an exception that allows the city to use surveillance technology in emergencies for seven days. But is that enough time to thwart a terrorist attack?
Beyond cameras, the ordinance broadly applies to other essential public safety tools, including license-plate readers, gunshot-detection hardware, DNA-capture technology and radio-frequency-ID scanners. It would even affect the body cameras worn by police officers.
As nearby cities use the technology we seek to ban and limit, criminals will commute to San Francisco as the place where they can conduct their criminal activities unnoticed. They already flock to San Francisco to break into cars because they think our judges and prosecutors don’t take property crime as seriously as other cities.
While it’s noble to protect people from the failings of facial recognition technology, this proposed law goes too far with traditional security video.
Neighborhood groups and individuals can also join the advocacy work of Stop Crime SF, which facilitates the installation of video cameras on merchant corridors and heavily trafficked tourist areas.
Standing against Big Brother and Big Tech is politically popular, but supervisors need to know their constituents understand that making good law requires attention to nuance.