This story is the second episode in XRAY’s Banned in PDX podcast series.
Listen to the XRAY.fm audio version of this story.
Drafters of Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban finally unveiled details last week of what could be the most aggressive restrictions barring the technology in the country. The proposed legislation would prohibit use of the controversial surveillance technology, not only by City of Portland government bureaus including law enforcement, but in most privately-owned places where the public is allowed.
And, if passed, people could sue private entities and Portland government if they violate the law.
Portland City Council commissioners will vote on the rules – a pair of ordinances – on August 13. If passed, the city will join other cities including San Francisco and Boston in banning government facial recognition use.
Portland’s groundbreaking legislation goes much further than other bans. It would establish a new chapter of city code prohibiting the use of facial recognition in places of public accommodation by private entities.
So, it would stop retailers or banks or hotels from using it for security purposes or to recognize loyal customers. It would prevent private schools or homeless shelters from deploying facial recognition to bar certain people from entering. And venues like theaters or the Moda Center would not be allowed to use facial recognition to detect ticket holders.
Face Recognition technologies capture images of people’s faces then use artificial intelligence to determine whether they match the facial characteristics of a known person. Despite claims of security and convenience, research studies including one from National Institute of Standards and Technology have proved that facial recognition systems are less accurate when attempting to detect Asians, African-Americans and indigenous people compared to whites.
So, for many a ban on facial recognition is a matter of civil and digital rights and racial justice.
“I want to ban this technology until it works as intended. That is my goal.”
– Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty
Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has been a vocal advocate for a facial recognition ban for several months. She made her mission clear during a January city council work session.
“I want to ban this technology until it works as intended. That is my goal,” she said during the session.
Exceptions to the Ban: Portland Public Schools and PDX Airport
There are some places that the ban would not affect, though. Notably, Portland public schools would not be covered by the ban because they are not under the city’s jurisdiction. But private schools would be covered, so private nursery and elementary schools, as well as secondary, undergraduate and post-graduate schools would not be allowed to use facial recognition.
The ban would not end use of facial recognition at the Portland International Airport either. The Oregonian has reported that Delta Airlines uses the technology there to screen passengers boarding non-stop international flights.
And the ban wouldn’t apply to places of worship, private workplaces such as offices or factories, or private residences. However, it would cover a lobby area of an office building, or an Airbnb rental.
There are no federal laws regulating facial recognition technology. Oregon law prohibits the use of facial recognition or other biometric matching technology to analyze recordings obtained through police body cameras.
Tech giants including Amazon and Microsoft make facial recognition, but so do all sorts of small tech firms. Many sell it as cutting edge tool for crime prevention and security.
A small St. Louis based company, Blue Line Technology, makes the facial recognition software used to guard the entrance at Jacksons convenience stores here in Portland. They sell their security products to convenience stores and a private school in St. Louis.
“Knowing who is around, and whether they pose a threat to your property or the people on your premises, means you can take action to prevent an incident,” the company claims on its website.
Local Business Groups Signal Opposition
Jacksons Food Stores, an Idaho company, has not lobbied the city regarding the proposed ban. However, local business groups have indicated some Portland companies would oppose regulations preventing them from using facial recognition for safety purposes.
Read or hear more on how Amazon has lobbied against Portland’s facial recognition ban, and about facial recognition at Jacksons stores. Stay tuned to XRAY.fm and subscribe to The Local podcast for future stories from this series leading up to Portland’s historic facial recognition ban.
“When using [facial recognition technology] for public safety and security, there’s definitely a lot of businesses that believe an outright ban is something they will not support, but notice and consent as principles are something that are reasonable requirements,” said Technology Association of Oregon President and CEO Skip Newberry during the January city council session. Newberry did not respond to a request to comment on the recently-unveiled ordinance drafts.
It is not clear how people would decline consent for facial recognition use without also refraining from patronizing a business or visiting a public space.
Alan Hipólito, director of special projects for local environmental and social enterprise group Verde said during the session that adopting facial recognition would increase disparities between the haves and the have-nots.
“Tech folks often talk about early adopters, those who are the first to see opportunity in new technology. Well, racism and inequality are the original early adopters. They take the first seats at the table anytime we create something new turning technology into a tool that increases systemic disparities.”
“Tech folks often talk about early adopters, those who are the first to see opportunity in new technology. Well, racism and inequality are the original early adopters.”
– Alan Hipólito, Verde
Portland’s legislation is part of a larger mission. If city council commissioners pass the new rules, they would set in motion efforts to adopt broad-reaching policy on all surveillance technologies – not just facial recognition. That could mean the city would create policy addressing other systems that gather voice or location data, or biometric data from technology that scans the iris of the eye or software that recognizes people by the gait of their walk.
“If we only ban facial recognition, companies could use some other biometric,” said Chris Bushick, co-organizer of PDX Privacy, a local group that has pushed for the city to address all biometric identification and surveillance technologies.
Portland’s facial recognition ban would allow people to sue non-compliant private entities for damages. And they could sue the city itself for relief if a government agency is found to violate the rules.
If passed, the ban on private use would go into effect January 1, 2021.
The city is accepting public comments and suggestions regarding the ban drafts until July 24 to be considered for the submission to City Council. Comments can be sent to to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Portland’s ban on public facial recognition use covered “government agencies and law enforcement” and later clarified that the ban would apply only to City of Portland government bureaus including law enforcement.