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Ilustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The criminal justice system has eagerly taken up AI tools for surveillance, policing and sentencing — software that can track people's faces, deploy patrols where crime appears most likely, and recommend whether to grant bail.

What's happening: But these tools are often cloaked in secrecy, so it can be impossible to judge their accuracy, or even know where and how they are being used. Critics say this opens the door to misuse and discrimination.

Driving the news: San Francisco yesterday approved the most restrictive government surveillance regulations in the U.S.

  • The new measure, if it is passed a second time next week, entirely bans official facial recognition in the city — though it does not apply to federal agencies — and requires every department that wants to use surveillance technology to apply for permission.
  • At the other extreme, across the Pacific, is China. It is implementing the most Orwellian surveillance system on the planet, leaning especially hard on facial recognition to identify and track its Uighur minority.

Why it matters: When poorly coded or deployed, AI systems can make huge mistakes or harm some groups more than others. But where faulty facial recognition in Snapchat might mean some people can't use a fun filter, flawed police software can land the wrong people in jail.

  • Because these systems are tightly guarded, outside experts can't check them for bias and accuracy, and the public doesn't know how well they perform.
  • Read this: London police, responding to a freedom of information request, said this month that its facial recognition system misidentified people as criminals a whopping 96% of the time.
  • What's more, experts and watchdogs say they don't actually know where such systems have been deployed around the United States, and defendants are often in the dark about whether advanced surveillance tech was used against them.

"You can't meaningfully build up a criminal defense, or change policies, if you don't know how these tools are being used," says Alice Xiang, a researcher at the Partnership on AI.

San Francisco will soon have its first-ever complete public list of surveillance technology currently in use, says Lee Hepner, legislative aide to San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the measure.

  • "Communities have a right to know whether their governments use dangerous surveillance technology to track their daily lives," says Matt Cagle, an attorney at the ACLU of Northern California who advocated for the measure.
  • Several other cities — including Oakland and Somerville, a city in the Boston area — are considering similar legislation.

The big picture: The uptake of AI in criminal justice mirrors a broad push to automate difficult or sensitive decisions, like hiring and diagnosing diseases from medical scans. But they are often implemented without proper safeguards, says Peter Eckersley, research director at the Partnership on AI.

  • The predictive systems used by nine police departments may have relied on biased data focused disproportionately on minority populations, according to a March report from AI now and New York University. If the report is accurate, this data may be enshrined in new predictive policing systems.
  • Last month, the Partnership on AI studied risk-assessment tools used to inform bail decisions and found that every system currently in use is flawed and should not be used.

What's next: Facial recognition is the most publicly controversial of the various AI tools governments use, and it's the one most likely to be regulated. Companies have asked the federal government to put rules in place for law enforcement use of the technology.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Peloton stock tanks on report of production halt

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Peloton stock fell by as much as 25% on Thursday, following a CNBC report that the connected fitness company will temporarily halt production on its bikes and treadmills.

Why it matters: Peloton is viewed by many as a proxy for consumer behavior in the pandemic era, as its popularity surged when gyms closed and people wanted to exercise at home.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: No evidence that healthy children, teens need boosters, WHO says — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older.
  5. Variant tracker
Updated 2 hours ago - World

Biden cleans up comments about Russia invading Ukraine

Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden sought to clarify his suggestion that a "minor incursion" by Russia into Ukraine may not draw the same response as a large invasion, telling reporters Thursday that "Russia will pay a heavy price" if any troops cross the border.

Why it matters: Some officials in Kyiv saw Biden's comments as inviting Russian aggression.