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San Francisco yesterday moved closer to becoming the first big city in America to ban police from using facial recognition software. The Board of Supervisors voted overwhelmingly for the ban. NPR's Martin Kaste has been following the growing use of facial recognition in the U.S. He joins us now. And Martin, to start, just how significant is this move?
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, nothing changes right now in practice. San Francisco police had tried facial recognition at one point, but it didn't really work out for them. They'd sort of let it go, so it wasn't in use. And it's also important to point out that other agencies that are not city agencies in San Francisco - such as the feds or maybe state investigators or the private sector - can still use facial recognition in the city.
I mean, if you walk into a store, there's still nothing to stop the store from using facial recognition to track people as they go around the aisles. But the privacy advocates who follow this stuff closely do believe that the sight of this very tech-savvy city drawing a line around facial recognition, saying that goes too far - that that will sort of get people's attention around the country and maybe inspire some other cities to pass similar bans.
CORNISH: But they're not getting rid of other kinds of technology - right? - other kinds of surveillance techniques like license plate readers. So what's the argument for singling out facial recognition - right? - for an across-the-board ban?
KASTE: I think the big argument right now is whether facial recognition is somehow fundamentally different from other kinds of surveillance. And, you know, the people behind this legislation say it is because, you know, unlike, say, your license plate or the phone in your pocket, your face is not something you can just leave at home. And the real fear here is that we might eventually move toward what China has been doing, which is having real-time surveillance of people in the street. That's something they're trying to build there.
Alvaro Bedoya is an expert in this field. He runs the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. And he says right now, it's true that police are still using facial recognition kind of in this limited way - it's called forensic facial recognition - where you take a crime scene photo after the fact and try to match it against mug shots. But he says there is some sign that what he calls face surveillance, the kind of thing China is trying to do, may be closer than Americans think.
ALVARO BEDOYA: Face surveillance is not commonplace, and that's probably a good thing. What we are seeing, though, are private actors getting their hands on the technology and using it in real time. And we're increasingly seeing police forces at the state and local level putting in writing and contract documents that they want it and then going out and buying.
KASTE: So there's this fear that the infrastructure's sort of quietly being built up and, at some point, suddenly, it'll just be part of our lives.
CORNISH: Is anyone going to bat for facial recognition here?
KASTE: Well, certainly, people who are worried about crime, especially property crime, say, you know, let's not be quite so sweeping in this. I mean, there's definitely a general sort of sense that mass surveillance is not something we want. But anti-crime groups, especially in San Francisco, say all this video that we're now uploading to the police, you know - if we really want to catch the sort of career package thief, you're going to have to use software to scan through all those hours of video to find commonalities, to find that face that keeps recurring.
CORNISH: Stepping back, when you look across the legal landscape, are there other kinds of government actions, right? Are there rules for facial recognition or anything like that?
KASTE: A few states have passed laws that regulate, to some degree, how commercial entities can use facial recognition. But when it comes to government use of facial recognition, it's still really kind of a white space out there when it comes to regulation. There's some sense here that that may become a problem, that if there's no regulation, this will become quickly so ubiquitous it'll freak people out. There might become a public backlash, and facial recognition will be banned.
Others, though, on the privacy side of this worry that the lack of regulation will just sort of set the stage for us getting used to it, and it'll become de facto the way things are done, unless we start passing some rules right now.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thank you.
KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.