Portland has taken its first steps toward enacting a far-reaching ban on facial recognition technology, which would limit the use of the software by city agencies and private businesses.
The idea is still in its nascent stage. City commissioners held their first work session on the topic Tuesday. If implemented as currently envisioned by some commissioners, the ban would set a new national precedent and make Portland the first major city to limit the use of the software by the private sector.
“We need to take a strong stance that the automated surveillance state is not welcome in Portland,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is spearheading the ban with the assistance of Smart City PDX and Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights.
Hardesty raised the same concerns surrounding the software as legislators in cities like San Francisco, Oakland and the Boston suburb of Somerville, all of which have recently banned the use of facial recognition technology by city agencies. The software is biased against women and people of color and the way the data is collected can be opaque and ripe for abuse, she said.
“These are matters of privacy, consent and civil rights,” Hardesty told the Council.
But while other cities have stopped short of regulating the software’s usage outside of city government, Hardesty said she “wants to make the exceptions as narrow as humanly possible.”
Hardesty said she began thinking about limiting private sector use after learning that Amazon had sold its powerful facial recognition program to the Washington County Sheriff's Office, which allowed police to identify suspects from surveillance footage or photographs.
“Whether it’s happening at the moment or a week from now or a month from now, I am very worried about private companies collecting data and storing it, and then making sweetheart deals with law enforcement about how they get access to that data,” Hardesty told the City Council. “If we’re not ahead of this, it will come into Portland and we will not be able to stop this train.”
A spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau said the bureau currently does not use “facial recognition technology, and there’s no immediate plans to do so.”
Andrew Shearer, the assistant chief of investigation for the Portland Police Bureau, told the Council that while he does see some potential use for the software in limited instances, he’s no expert and the issue “warrants further investigation.”
There are obvious regulatory questions that would arise from a ban that touches software already incorporated into the security cameras and phones of Portlanders.
Mayor Ted Wheeler told the Council that while he supports a private sector ban, he wants to focus on “surveillance technology where we are not completely aware that it’s taking place” instead of the type of technology where the user gave consent, such as “picking up an iPhone and using facial recognition.”
Judith Mowry, a senior policy adviser with Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, agreed, saying this was “far from a Luddite movement,” and that the ban coming into formation should differentiate between consensual and involuntary surveillance.
Mowry said the ban grew out of a concern shared by Hardesty and the equity office over how facial recognition might be implemented in Portland, as certain bureaus had started to express interest in purchasing technology that came with facial recognition.
“Facial recognition is becoming now, like, you get your large fries with your drink,” Mowry said. “It’s just becoming ubiquitous. So as we began to notice that and research that we really wanted to get ahead of it.”
Hector Dominguez, the open data coordinator for Smart City PDX, said he plans to return to City Council in November with a more fleshed-out policy. Council members asked to hold another work session before November to hear from civil rights organizations such as the ACLU and get more input from the Portland Police Bureau.