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Alfonse D'Amato

Bad bans, good bans and banning bad governance


San Francisco’s recent decision to prohibit all forms of facial-recognition technology is a good example of a ban that goes way too far. It will leave San Franciscans less safe and more vulnerable to crime, and represents an unnecessary over-reaction rather than a reasoned consideration of this emerging technology.

When it comes to fighting the threat of crime, our law enforcement authorities should be expected and encouraged to reasonably employ all available modern tools. For more than a century, that has meant using fingerprints to snag criminals. More recently, DNA evidence has enabled investigators to exactly match suspects to crime victims. Many murderers and rapists are now caught using this tool.

Today, new facial-recognition programs have the potential to instantaneously identify suspects based on unique facial characteristics. Security cameras are all around us. They’re in almost all public places. They regularly capture criminal activity on camera, and help police zero in and identify suspects. They give the public critical information to help solve robberies, abductions, street shootings and other violent crimes.

Imagine a suspected terrorist who shows up on an airport security screening and trips a facial-recognition tool. Or a suspicious visitor to a school whose visage can quickly be scanned to determine whether he or she may be dangerous. Or a suspect caught on camera near or at a crime scene whose face can be matched with known criminals. Or a thief who tries to cash a stolen check at a bank and can be facially detected right at the teller’s window.

That’s not to say that this new technology should be used without strong oversight and controls. We must insist on preventing its abuse, identifying and tracking people as they simply go about their daily lives. We should insist that the technology not be focused on any racial or ethnic group. We would not want to emulate China, which increasingly uses facial recognition to spy on vast numbers of its people, and has focused the technology on identifying and persecuting millions of ethnic Muslim Uighurs.

Such broad civilian spying would be patently un-American in the U.S. That’s where our lawmakers come in. They must find a way to strike a balance between security and civil liberty, between oversight and over-reach. They have been able to do that so far with other technologies that have the potential to be abused — for example, phone and internet surveillance, which are tightly circumscribed by legislative and judicial oversight.

At the other end of the ban spectrum is the recent move in New York to phase out the use of plastic bags in retail stores. Sure, it will be a mild inconvenience to shoppers, as we’ll all have to shift to reusable bags to haul groceries and other purchases. But there’s overwhelming evidence that these bags collect by the millions in our environment, both on land and in our waters, and clog our landfills with plastic that takes thousands of years to biodegrade.

And again, that’s where our lawmakers come in, to inform the public about the need for environmentally sound policy like this ban. My hat goes off to local advocates and activists like Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, who has worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the environmental damage cause by plastic bags and Styrofoam containers and has pressed for local action to eliminate them. Her initiative helped encourage the State Legislature to enact a statewide ban on plastic bags as proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also showed real leadership on this issue.

The key to striking the right balance of good government is avoiding bad governance. By that I mean electing public officials who put the public, not themselves, first. Our local leaders — who should be closest to the people they represent — ought to be particularly mindful of this. But that isn’t always the case.

The City of Long Beach is a textbook case of how not to govern. Serial mismanagement and indifference to the public interest there has led to deteriorating services and inordinately high taxes. The recent decision by city officials to bust through the 2 percent tax cap with a whopping 7.9 percent tax hike means an average tax increase of $300 for homeowners there. Let’s hope voters will ban these failed leaders in November.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.