iPhone exemption in San Francisco face recognition ban opens can of worms

Governments and legal systems are often criticized for being slow to adapt to the times especially when fast-changing technology is concerned. Some do try to catch up, sometimes in haste and often with rather disastrous results. One example is the battle to protect privacy and security against face recognition. A new San Francisco law that banned such technologies from government use amusingly included even the use of Apple iPhones. Now a silent amendment that undoes that error may have also created a precedent for surveillance equipment to be exempted as well.

In May, San Francisco passed a municipal law that put a ban on surveillance equipment in government, particularly those that utilized facial recognition. Staffers and agencies scampered to make an inventory of such tools used not just in offices but especially in the police department. This lead to two important discoveries one is that the SFPD had purchased software for using face recognition on a database of mugshots. The other is that it was now illegal to buy and use iPhones for government use.

This latter detail was an effect of the law's blanket ban on face recognition technology which means the iPhone's Face ID is covered by that ban. And since there are no iPhones without Face ID, the humble iPhone is therefore categorized as surveillance equipment. That, obviously, did not sit well with many iPhone users and perhaps even Apple.

A vote made last Tuesday amended that law to exempt the iPhone under a new condition. The new law would allow the purchase and use of previously banned equipment if the equipment in question has other critical features and no alternatives are viable. An additional constraint for the iPhone is that Face ID has to be disabled, leaving users to fall back on passcodes instead.

Unfortunately, that same amendment may allow other surveillance equipment to be exempted. Agencies, like the police department, can simply argue how the equipment has other important uses without other alternatives. So, no, San Francisco's war on surveillance is far from done.