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Surveillance technology under fire, amid growing societal concerns

As San Francisco halts city use of facial recognition technology, CIOs could see more regulatory actions against surveillance technology -- and more limits on their use of data.

Civic leaders in some communities are pushing back on the explosive and, oftentimes controversial, use of technologies to track, monitor and analyze people, and some experts said it could be the start of more such action.

The most recent move comes from San Francisco, where the city's governing body recently voted to halt city use of facial recognition technology.

The May 14 vote from San Francisco's board of supervisors comes as others, including Oakland, Calif., and Somerville, Mass., consider similar measures to curb surveillance technology. And it follows a spate of new and proposed data-privacy laws (most notably the California Consumer Privacy Act) that clamp down on the collection and use of personal data by organizations.

The regulations reflect the growing societal concerns over surveillance technologies and an increasing willingness to take action to legislate their use.

"There is a tech backlash that is starting to have consequences for a variety of technologies," said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, founding director of the think tank's Center for Technology Innovation and editor in chief of its TechTank blog.

The impact of technology on privacy, security, human safety and fairness top the list of concerns, West said. He said people are worried that rapidly evolving technologies are invading their personal lives, taking their jobs and impacting human autonomy.

There are so many new technologies unfolding simultaneously that it's making people nervous.
Darrell M. WestVice president and director of governance studies, Brookings Institution

"There are so many new technologies unfolding simultaneously that it's making people nervous," he said. "People are wondering how to channel new technologies in constructive directions. They want technologies that serve people and that don't create problems."

Fast-growing, 'important' tech

In San Francisco, the board of supervisors voted 8 to 1 in favor of the "Stop Secret Surveillance" ordinance. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who championed the measure, said in advance of the vote that the ordinance was not an "anti-technology policy," but rather one seeking to bring accountability when and how the technology is used.

The ordinance bars city agencies, including police, from using facial recognition technology. It further requires city agencies to get board approval for the acquisition of surveillance technologies and requires audits of any surveillance technology already in use.

Facial recognition technology maps facial features and then compares that information with databases of known faces to find a match. The technology is used in a range of applications by various users for varying objectives. Companies, for example, use it for security to ensure only credentialed individuals can gain access to secure locations, documents or items. Government agencies around the world use it for surveillance, for security reasons as well as for monitoring.

Research firm MarketsandMarkets estimated that the global market for facial recognition technologies would grow to $7.76 billion by 2022, up from $3.37 billion in 2016, with growth driven by a demand for enhanced surveillance and monitoring of public places by both government and private entities.

Research firm Gartner similarly identified facial recognition as an important tech for the future, noting in its "Top Strategic Predictions for 2019 and Beyond" report that in mature markets it will lead to an 80% reduction in missing people by 2023. "Over the next few years, advances in AI will lead to increasingly sophisticated facial recognition technology, particularly useful in identifying lost children or elderly citizens. Although current facial recognition is limited in application, the speed of recognition using one-to-many matching, even in large sample sets, is less than 600 microseconds," the report states.

CIOs take notice

Industry experts said surveillance technology without question delivers real value -- value that organizations are trying to utilize without raising consumer alarm.

Dion HinchcliffeDion Hinchcliffe

Today's CIOs are seeking to strike a delicate and increasingly fraught balance between protecting stakeholder privacy and meeting regulatory constraint with facial recognition tech, just as the technology offers unique and potentially significant business opportunities to exploit it," said Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst with Constellation Research.

Still, the potential for organizations to overstep what citizens will accept as legitimate uses of facial recognition applications and other surveillance technology is there, he added -- which, in turn, could prompt further regulations over surveillance technologies.

Steve WilsonSteve Wilson

Constellation Research colleague Steve Wilson said corporate overreach on the use of surveillance technology is already in play.

"Consumers have uploaded billions of snapshots into the cloud, and behind their backs, data companies have run face recognition over the pictures, covertly trained algorithms using the data, and done who knows what else. … So, by my analysis, a great deal of facial recognition breaches existing privacy laws," said Wilson, vice president and principal analyst at the firm.

However, Wilson questioned whether new statutes aimed at this type of digital surveillance technology are necessary -- in particular, the implementation of new bans.

"I advocate using existing data protection laws diligently to ensure that the collection of personal data by face recognition is proportionate, fair and transparent," he added.

More regulations could be coming, curtailing CIO data strategies

Bruce SchneierBruce Schneier

Meanwhile, security technologist Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School said San Francisco's move is part of a pushback against tech-enabled surveillance -- and, more specifically, the secretive use of it by organizations -- rather than a reaction to the technology itself.

"It's lawmakers saying, 'We're in charge.' That's what's we're seeing. It's an attempt to bring [the use of surveillance technology] out into the open," said Schneier, a prolific writer on security issues who is also a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AccessNow and the Tor Project.

Schneier said lawmakers (particularly at the state level) are also taking a similar stand against organizations and their use of personal data, which, to date, has been relatively unconstrained.

Analysts and researchers said CIOs will indeed feel the impact of such legislative, as it has the potential to curtail their data strategies moving forward.

But how far any new laws will go, and how much they could limit organizational uses of data whether for facial recognition technology or other types of surveillance technology, is unclear.

"I think the U.S. is a long way from real regulation in this space," Schneier said, noting that most of the action will be at the local or state level as corporate interests will work to counteract federal-level regulations. "Passing the laws that people want -- and the money doesn't -- is very hard. When money doesn't want it, it tends not to happen."

West, on the other hand, said the growing number of local and state lawmakers willing to implement new rules on surveillance technologies or on tech-driven companies such as Uber and Airbnb is a sign of more pushback to come.

"We're likely to see more regulations emerge moving forward. And for CIOs, they should be worried about new regulations because those things will affect how they operate their business," West said.

He added, "For the past few decades, America has been libertarian on technology issues, allowing companies to make decisions on new products and how they're rolled out. Now, people are starting to impose guardrails to make sure technology serves the public interest."

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