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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

Updated 1 hour ago - World

German election: Exit polls show close race to succeed Angela Merkel

SPD leader Olaf Scholz. Photo: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BERLIN — Exit polls from Sunday's German elections showed the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) slightly ahead of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in a tight election race to succeed Angela Merkel.

State of play: Official results were still rolling in, but a partial count showed the SPD ahead with 26% of the vote and the CDU on just over 24%.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Liz Cheney: Americans deserve better than choice of Biden or Trump

Rep. Liz Cheney talks with Lesley Stahl on CBS' "60 Minutes." Photo: CBS News

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that Americans "deserve better than having to choose between" President Biden's "disastrous" policies and former President Trump, "who violated his oath of office."

Why it matters: Cheney made the remarks after CBS' Lesley Stahl put it to her in the interview that Republicans feel that her joining the House select committee in charge of investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot helps "keep the focus on Trump instead of on the shortcomings of the Biden administration."

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

First look: The LCV's $4M ad buy

A screenshot from a new League of Conservation Voters ad supporting Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

The League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power are aiming another $4 million worth of ads at centrist House Democrats, urging them to support the climate provisions in President Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Progressive groups are trying to counter the onslaught of conservative money pouring into swing districts. Both sides are trying to define Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda and pressure lawmakers to support — or oppose — the legislation scheduled for a vote in the House this week.