Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology


Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology

On July 1 the City of San Francisco effected a ban on facial recognition technology—the first of its kind in the nation.  Aimed at leading with transparency, accountability and equity, the ban passed as part of the city’s Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance.  While the city stopped testing facial recognition technology in 2007 and has not been using the software in the years leading up to the ban, this legislation is significant because it expands upon action taken by other cities to require board of supervisors approval for any law enforcement or city agency use or purchase of new surveillance technologies. It is also the first ordinance of its kind to specifically address facial recognition technology, which has seen increased use and controversy in recent years.

Facial Recognition Technology Could Exacerbate Racial Injustice

Chief among the rationales presented by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the legislation, was the bias baked into the way facial recognition software currently works.  Research from MIT in 2018 documents that forms of facial recognition software powered by artificial intelligence (AI) consistently make more errors when identifying women and Black people than they do for white men.

When combined with higher levels of enrollment of people of color and Black people in police databases, as a result of structural racism these differences in error rates could exacerbate racial injustice exposing historically disadvantaged populations to increased harm.

During a May 2019 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, a witness from the Algorithmic Justice League noted that mis-identification of Black people by facial recognition has already led to false arrests. Efforts to reduce implicit bias in government workers cannot do anything to address biases once they become embedded into technologies through algorithms.

Researchers Have Raised Government Transparency and Civil Liberties Concerns

There are a variety of other issues that forays into facial recognition technology represent for cities. Highest among these is transparency about its use. This unique form of technology—essentially secret biometric surveillance—can be conducted secretly at scale and without consent, unlike any other previously vetted and authorized technologies such as fingerprinting.

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Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology