What the San Francisco Facial Recognition Ban Could Mean for Digital Signage in 2019

Early in May, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 to ban the use of facial recognition by city agencies, capturing the attention of digital signage companies everywhere. 

Facial recognition has been used in the past by law enforcement to recognize identity theft suspects but not everybody’s happy with the new AI. Whistleblowers have been calling for regulation for years on the grounds that it’s a slippery slope towards compromised privacy. 

The effects of the San Francisco facial recognition ban are being hotly debated right and you may be wondering—what does that mean for digital signage? Let’s take a look.

What started the San Francisco facial recognition ban?

The San Francisco facial recognition ban was introduced as a proactive effort to stop government agencies, such as the city police and county’s sheriff’s department, from abusing a technology that isn’t yet reliable. 

The problem with facial recognition technology can be broken down into two main factors:

1. Reliability

As of now, AI technology has trouble accurately identifying faces that are female or have darker skin, with error rates as high as 35%. Unsurprisingly, this presents a problem since this kind of error can lead law enforcement to false identification, not to mention further entrenching existing biases within law enforcement.

Women and people of color aren’t the only ones that could be harmed by facial recognition, though. Existing technology also has problems identifying transgender people, especially transgender people of color, putting an already marginalized group at higher risk of misidentification.

2. Privacy

Facial recognition technology has yet to be abused in the US but in China, citizens are exposed to near-constant monitoring. While we’re not looking at a totalitarian takeover just yet, privacy advocates caution against entrenching facial recognition technology before its accuracy has been improved and reliably regulated.

It’s worth noting that prior to the ban, San Francisco law enforcement didn’t use facial recognition technology. Not to mention that despite worries about privacy, facial recognition has been used positively to:

So, while facial recognition technology should be approached cautiously, it can be used for good.

Who does the San Francisco facial recognition ban affect?

At the moment, the ban only affects government agencies within the city such as the city police and county sheriff’s office. Federal agencies and public businesses won’t be affected and government agencies can’t solicit information from places that do use facial recognition technology. 

Private individuals using facial recognition technology can still call in tips to share with local law enforcement, however. Agencies will be required to ask how tips were obtained so that they can keep track of how prevalent facial recognition is, but those tips can still be used.

Outside of San Francisco, the ban has since gone on to inspire a slew of similar facial recognition bans. Somerville, Massachusettes was the next to follow in June and Oakland, California soon after.

What’s the difference between facial detection and facial recognition?

Facial detection and facial recognition are often used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences:

  • Facial detection refers to computer technology that can detect the presence of a human face within a digital image. This can be used to identify characteristics like a person’s age, gender, or facial expression. This information is then collected anonymously and used to advertise to targeted consumers.
  • Facial recognition, in contrast, can actually identify someone by their face. Now, don’t freak out! While this may sound alarming, facial recognition is already being commonly used among public companies and isn’t inherently bad. If you’ve ever unlocked your phone using your camera, you’ve already been identified by facial recognition technology. 

What does this mean for digital signage?

At the moment, nothing. In fact, despite the ban, many industry experts expect facial recognition to become a staple in the digital world. 

“Written feedback, voice feedback and body language will be the holy trinity to delivering a robust customer experience once facial recognition technology is mastered,” says Brennan Wilkie, Senior Vice President of Customer Experience Strategy at InMoment.

Others recommend a more cautious, but still optimistic view.

“We have to regulate how to use it in the future. Everything can be useful for good things and for bad things,” says Mikhail Ivanov, CEO of NTechLabs.” I think there are lots of cases where facial recognition can be used for good things to make our lives safer and more comfortable.”

Proactive measures need to be taken if digital signage vendors want to avoid strict government regulation, however. As more and more people become aware of facial recognition and the dangers it could bring, it’s important for digital signage vendors to maintain complete transparency. As shown by Facebook’s most recent lawsuit, people don’t take kindly to their personal info being exploited.

Maintaining transparency doesn’t just fall on a single company, however. One bad experience can ruin things for the entire industry. Digital signage vendors need to be willing to call out all counts of misuse of data within the field if they want to maintain consumer trust.

In Conclusion: Key Takeaways

  • San Francisco’s facial recognition ban only applies to government agencies within the city
  • Digital signage vendors are as of now unaffected by the ban
  • Maintaining transparency within the industry is vital to avoiding strict future government regulation

Read More