As facial recognition software stokes privacy fears, some cities are imposing bans

Oakland becomes the third U.S. city to ban the intrusive technology to its monitor residents, saying it could threaten privacy and civil liberties.

Opposition to public surveillance of citizens is growing as last week Oakland, California, became the third U.S. city to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by municipal agencies. (Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty Images)
Opposition to public surveillance of citizens is growing as last week Oakland, California, became the third U.S. city to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by municipal agencies. (Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty Images)

A growing number of U.S. cities are banning facial-recognition software, amid fears that the intrusive approach would open wide the door to creeping public surveillance of private citizens.

Officials in Oakland, California last week forbade government agencies, including its police department, from buying or using facial-recognition technology, joining Somerville, Massachusetts and San Francisco, which announced bans earlier this year.

“Face recognition technology runs the risk of making Oakland residents less safe as the misidentification of individuals could lead to the misuse of force, false incarceration, and minority-based persecution,” council president Rebecca Kaplan said in a letter supporting the ban.

Opposition to the public screening of private citizens is likely to grow, as more city and state legislators express concerns about the technology and consider restrictions of their own. The American Civil Liberties Union and Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights organization, are also pushing for a nationwide ban on facial recognition technology.


Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, recently wrote an essay for the group’s website condemning the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for a plan announced late last year to use facial recognition technology to secure the nation’s airports.

“And just how much information does a government agency need to establish whether a person is a threat?” Stanley asked. “As the ACLU has long argued, there will never be enough to satisfy the government. There is a logic of identity-based security, and it inevitably leads toward a regime of expanding information collection, surveillance, and tracking of individuals.”

Recent polling suggests the battle against the technology is an uphill climb., a travel-booking website, conducted an online survey in May of 1001 adults, finding that 43% of respondents support the use of facial-recognition technology in airports to improve security and the speed up the process of boarding passengers, while 33% disapproved. Nearly a quarter of respondents (24.8%) had no opinion.

“Citizens are mixed on their opinions of facial recognition technology, as shown in our survey,” the firm said in releasing its report. “There are many pros and cons for governments to work out in the coming years.”

For its part, Fight for the Future last week launched an interactive map to track where in the country local and state governments are employing facial recognition, as well as where it is being opposed. The organization said the map and an accompanying tool kit was created to support local activists who are fighting for facial recognition bans in their communities.


“We’re seeing growing momentum across the country of people pushing back against this dangerous technology, and we wanted to provide a useful resource to put all this information together,” said Evan Greer, digital-rights campaign director at Fight for the Future.

So far, only San Francisco, Somerville, and Oakland, three cities known for their liberal activism, have instituted bans against the technology, but others are expected to follow. Berkeley, California, is considering a ban, for example and the state legislatures in Massachusetts and Michigan also have bills pending.

Even in the U.S. Congress, there have been some expressions of bipartisan support for a federal ban on facial recognition technology.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), in a rare show of agreement, condemned facial-recognition technology during a congressional hearing in June.

“Doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on,” Jordan told the panel, “this should concern us all.”