City Ban on Business Use of Facial Recognition Tech Said to Be a First

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Elected leaders in Portland, Oregon approved the measure this week.

The city council in Portland, Oregon this week unanimously voted to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology by city agencies, as well as by private companies in public places.

Civil liberties groups said Portland’s new restrictions on the use of the technology by businesses is a nationwide first. In approving the policy, city council members cited concerns about residents’ privacy, and pointed to problems with facial recognition software misidentifying women and people who are Black or have darker complexions.

"We are a pro-technology city, but what we've seen so far in practice with this technology, it just continues to exacerbate the over-criminalization of Black and brown people in our community,” said Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

The new restrictions are outlined in two pieces of legislation, one that applies to the city government and another to businesses. The legislation comes as Portland has seen weeks of chaotic protests over police conduct, racial injustice and other issues, with different groups of demonstrators clashing violently at times with one another and with law enforcement officers.

Under the ban, businesses in the city will not be permitted to use facial recognition in “places of public accommodation,” a category that generally includes restaurants, hotels and retail stores. Sidewalks in front of businesses are also covered by the ban, city staff said.

While the government ban would apply to Portland’s bureaus and agencies, it would not extend to other levels of government, like the state, the surrounding county, or federal law enforcement operating in the city, according to a city staff member who spoke at a council meeting this week.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of groups that supports the Portland legislation, lists at least 14 other U.S. cities that have adopted bans of some sort on facial recognition technology.

“Face surveillance is an invasive threat to our privacy,” Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement.

“We hope the passage of this landmark legislation in Portland will spur efforts to enact statewide legislation that protects all Oregonians from the broad range of ways that our biometric information is collected, stored, sold, and used without our permission,” Carson added.

Some privacy advocates and civil liberties groups that weighed in on the pair of bills, which the council approved Wednesday, offered recommendations for how the legislation might be changed to eliminate possible loopholes and to clarify certain language. Generally, though, they were supportive of the measures and the council’s goals in passing them.

But some in the tech sector expressed concerns about the council’s approach.

Jake Parker, with the Security Industry Association, told the council during testimony this week, that his group feels the ban is extreme, unnecessary and that, as written, it would sweep in many facial recognition technologies that have nothing to do with surveillance.

And while emphasizing that the group does not support the use of the technology for mass surveillance by the government, he did suggest it could be helpful for solving crimes.

“Any technology can be abused,” he said. A ban, Parker added, precludes the opportunity to enact policies that would allow the technology to be used in “appropriate and acceptable ways.”

Jon Isaacs, vice president of government affairs for the Portland Business Alliance, said the group agrees that the city should take steps to protect people from having their “biometric data,” like images of their faces, collected without their consent for commercial purposes.

And, he said, the group also agrees that policies should be designed to prevent racially biased outcomes with the use of technology. 

But Isaacs said that the alliance hopes the strict ban on businesses using facial recognition would be temporary and that there would be future legislation to address concerns the group has.

For instance, the alliance wants to see clearer language that excludes the use of facial recognition technology on mobile devices by visitors to a business, as well as a carve out allowing for the use of the technology for “individual opt-in experiences,” like automated hotel check-ins or ticket verification.

Critics, however, remain deeply skeptical of the technology. 

“Facial recognition is fundamentally incompatible with a free society,” Lia Holland, a Portland resident and activist with the group Fight for the Future, told the council. Holland said that even seemingly innocuous uses, like deploying the technology to help speed up check-in lines or process payments, pose potential threats to civil liberties.

“Facial recognition and surveillance enables racism, surveillance enables authoritarianism and surveillance demands conformity,” she added. “This tech is opaque by design.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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