Before Portland Votes on a Facial Recognition Ban, What You Need to Know

This story is the first in a series leading to a vote that could ban facial recognition in Portland. Don’t miss future reports from this XRAY series. Subscribe to The Local podcast and follow Kate Kaye on Twitter.

Listen to the XRAY.fm audio version of this story.

Cities across the country have banned use of facial recognition by police departments and government agencies. Portland will have its turn soon. Despite a slowdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the city council still plans to vote on its own proposed ban on facial recognition – possibly in August.

Facial recognition has drawn condemnation as a flawed technology that violates human rights and civil liberties. Meanwhile, it is touted as a powerful tool for public safety, crime deterrence and police investigations.

Several research studies have shown these systems fail to detect black and brown faces accurately. Research from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in December showed that many facial recognition algorithms were 10 to 100 times more likely to inaccurately identify black or East Asian faces, compared with white faces.

“A few agencies have instituted meaningful protections to prevent the misuse of the technology. In many more cases, it is out of control.”
– Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology

So, it is especially controversial when it used by law enforcement. “One in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network,” noted Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology in 2018. “A few agencies have instituted meaningful protections to prevent the misuse of the technology. In many more cases, it is out of control.”

Amid global protests against police abuse of black people sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, three makers of facial recognition tech – IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft – said earlier this month they would end or pause sales of it to law enforcement.

How is Facial Recognition Used Anyway?

Facial recognition technology uses artificial intelligence to compare a face in a photo or video image with a database of faces to find a match and identify people.

It’s used for all sorts of purposes, from the mundane to the dystopian. Digital content producers use it to tag celebrities in videos by detecting their faces. Apple FaceID uses it to unlock iPhones with one look.

Police have used facial recognition to help locate a missing child. Or, it has been used to enable what Georgetown Law called a perpetual, virtual line-up by comparing the faces of suspected criminals to driver’s license and ID photos.

Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Ryan Lee said during a January work session about facial recognition the bureau does not use the technology. He said the bureau would create an oversight body and seek public input if it wanted to do so.

In nearby Washington County, Oregon, the Sheriff’s Office had been using Amazon’s facial recognition technology since 2017. The agency told XRAY it disabled the system on June 10, right after Amazon announced its one-year pause of facial recognition use by law enforcement.

Though facial recognition has “valuable uses,” Washington County Sheriff’s Office Communications Sergeant Danny DiPietro told XRAY it’s just one of many tools used for investigations. “This is not by any means the be all, catch all saving grace for law enforcement at all,” he said.

“Facial recognition is not by any means the be all, catch all saving grace for law enforcement at all.”
– Sergeant Danny DiPietro, Washington County Sheriff’s Office

Critics fear a future in which police, government agencies or even private entities deploy facial recognition for supercharged mass surveillance. It’s already happening today in northwest China, drawing outcries of human rights and civil liberties violations. There, in the Xinjiang territory, facial recognition and other AI are used to profile and track the Muslim Uighur population.

Amazon and Big Tech Oppose Portland’s Proposed Ban

Despite its moratorium, Amazon fought Portland’s proposed ban on facial recognition as recently as December. The company paid $12,000 to send two lobbyists to speak with Portland city council and mayor’s office staff in the hopes of stopping the ban – or at least massaging the language a bit.

Staff in City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office met with the Amazon lobbyists regarding the ban. “They’re hoping that they can stop it, and they can’t. And if they can’t stop it, they’re hoping to soften the language so that they would have more wiggle room –  and they also won’t be able to do that,” she told this reporter. (Hardesty’s comments were originally referenced in this OneZero story about Amazon’s lobbying efforts).

Hardesty, one of the most ardent supporters of a ban, considered it a matter of personal data freedom over profit. “We will have to agree to disagree whether or not [Amazon’s] ability to make profit supersedes people’s ability to control their own biometric data and to give their own personal consent when that data is being collected,” she said.

But big tech has fought Portland’s proposed ban behind-the-scenes in other ways, too – including in the pages of the Oregonian newspaper.

“This technology gives users access to sensitive data, is racially biased, has accuracy problems and lacks transparency and accountability when it comes to managing personal information and data protection.”
– Hector Dominguez and Kevin Martin, Smart City PDX 

“Rather than take a ‘ban first, ask questions later’ approach, Portland should undertake a series of small-scale pilots of [facial recognition] technology to evaluate its effectiveness and impact on privacy in various settings,” argued a research analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in a January 15 Oregonian opinion column.

The board of the ITIF, a Washington, D.C. “think tank,” is stacked with tech firm lobbyists including Amazon’s VP of Public Policy Shannon Kellogg.

The city’s need to act on facial recognition policy “was clear,” wrote Hector Dominguez and Kevin Martin of Smart City PDX in their Oregonian retort to ITIF. Smart City PDX is Portland’s data and technology policy group which has been leading development of a proposed ban.

“This technology gives users access to sensitive data, is racially biased, has accuracy problems and lacks transparency and accountability when it comes to managing personal information and data protection,” they wrote.

Facial Recognition in Portland Convenience Stores

jacksons_blueline_camera
A facial recognition system is used overnights to guard entry to Jacksons Stores in Portland.

One thing that could have Amazon and other makers of facial recognition worried is the strength of Portland’s ban, which could be a lot stricter than the ones in other cities. It is not only expected to outlaw law enforcement and government use, but also use by private entities like retailers or other businesses.

In Portland, that is no hypothetical.

A facial recognition system deployed overnights at three Jacksons convenience stores right here on the east side of Portland greets would-be customers by announcing, “Please look into camera for entry.”

The cameras detect the faces of people the store has banned from shopping there after they were accused of theft. The doors open for most people, but stay locked if the system detects one of the two people Jacksons says it has banned from its Portland stores.  The company says the system has been a theft deterrent and makes customers and employees feel safer.

Commissioner Hardesty has said she was “appalled” when she learned of the facial recognition system at Jacksons stores.

“People don’t give up their civil rights just to go into a convenience store and spend their hard-earned money,” said Hardesty. “That should not be the price of admission.”

Next Up In This Series: How does facial recognition at Jacksons stores in Portland work? What will the city council weigh when they vote on a ban this summer? Don’t miss future reports from this XRAY series on facial recognition in Portland. Subscribe to The Local podcast and follow Kate Kaye on Twitter.