Portland passes nation’s toughest restriction on facial recognition technology

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Sept. 9, 2020 11:45 p.m. Updated: Sept. 10, 2020 12:47 a.m.

It restricts private use along with city efforts.

The Portland City Council has passed the nation’s strictest ban on facial recognition technology, barring the use of the software by city bureaus and restricting its use by private businesses.

The ban prohibits city agencies from using facial recognition technology, something cities including Oakland, San Francisco and the Boston suburb of Somerville have also done amid concerns over infringement of people’s privacy and bias in the algorithms.


Portland’s rule will also restrict use of the technology by the private sector, a first in the nation.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty listens to testimony over a proposed ordinance on April 4, 2019.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty pushed the ban on facial recognition technology.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

The private sector ban bars businesses from using facial recognition technology in public areas within Portland city limits. For example, a private business could not have a camera equipped with the technology capturing people on a public sidewalk.

The facial recognition ban, introduced jointly by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty Wednesday, passed unanimously.

“We own our privacy,” Hardesty said before voting. “And it’s our obligation to make sure that we’re not allowing people to gather it up secretly and sell it for profit or fear-based activity.”

Hardesty had championed the policy since last fall when the council took its first steps to enact the far-reaching ban with a work session led by Smart City PDX and Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights. Hardesty said at the time she began thinking about limiting private sector use after learning that Amazon had sold its facial recognition program to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, which allowed police to identify suspects from surveillance footage or photographs. The Portland Police have said they do not use facial recognition technology.

In the months since the idea was first introduced, all commissioners had gotten on board. In their remarks, each noted the far-reaching ban would likely draw attention from across the U.S.


“Let’s be clear,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz. “This will be a nationally recognized policy.”

City leaders have framed banning the technology in the public and private domain as necessary to protect Portlanders' right to privacy. The software relies on gathering biometric information, which could potentially be stored and sold. According to Judith Mowry, senior policy advisor at the Office of Equity and Human Rights who updated the council Wednesday, this information is not legally protected in Oregon.

During public testimony, a majority of the 20 or so people who testified urged the council to adopt the ban. Some noted it was impossible for them to consent to have their data collected.

“The opposition to these bans will say (facial recognition technology) could be good, that we need to wait to see if this can be made better, that the algorithm can be made perfect,” said Darren Golden. “All of that is wrong. You can not consent to having your facial data taken by camera on any public access way. Ever. You just can’t.”

City leaders say the rules are also necessary to protect communities of color. The technologies have been found to use algorithms biased against women and people of color. An MIT study in 2018 found software has an error rate of 0.8 percent for light-skinned men. It found an error rate of 34.7 percent for dark-skinned women.

“All Portlanders, and frankly all people, are entitled to a city government that will not use technology with a demonstrated gender and racial bias which endangers personal privacy,” Wheeler said.

The policy change attracted the attention of several business groups, which pushed for the council to narrow the ban and carve out exceptions for specific sectors. The Oregon Bankers Association wrote a letter to the city, for example, saying facial recognition technology has “an important role to play in keeping our banks and their customers and employees safe.” They asked city leaders to consider an exception for banks and issue a moratorium instead of a ban. The Portland Business Alliance had also pushed for more targeted restrictions.

“The Alliance encourages you to design any proposal to focus on the inappropriate uses of a technology, and not an outright ban,” read a letter signed by Jon Isaacs, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, and Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon. “Banning specific technologies can be a fast and slippery slope leading to more bans on technologies that government officials do not yet fully understand.”

Brain Hofer, executive director of nonprofit Secure Justice, drafted facial recognition bans for the San Francisco Bay area and urged the council to pass the bans as structured and not give way to people calling for a temporary moratorium to test the waters.

“The moratorium folks would like us to believe that this tool could be used appropriately in narrow circumstances,” he said. “No tool this versatile has ever been successfully confined to one or two uses for very long. Mission creep is a historical reality.”

The ban on use by city agencies will be put into effect immediately. The prohibition on private use will take effect Jan. 1, 2021.