Portland, Oregon, passes toughest ban on facial recognition in US


Under Portland’s ordinance, private businesses will be banned from using facial recognition. 

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Portland’s City Council on Wednesday passed the strongest ban on facial recognition in the US, blocking the technology from private businesses as well as government agencies in the Oregon city. 

Portland’s ban on facial recognition isn’t the first, but it’s the strictest. Though cities like San Francisco, Boston and Oakland, California, have all passed legislation banning government agencies from using facial recognition, Portland’s measure also prohibits commercial businesses from using the technology.  

The bill passed unanimously, and the ban will take effect in January 2021. 

That means that along with police officers being banned from using facial recognition to identify potential suspects, stores and businesses won’t be able to use the technology either. An Oregonian report in February detailed how a Portland convenience store used facial recognition to allow entry and identify shoplifters. 

The ban will also extend to facial recognition at airports, where airlines like Delta use the technology for boarding.

“All Portlanders are entitled to a city government that will not use technology with demonstrated racial and gender biases that endanger personal privacy,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The commercial ban on facial recognition signals a larger move to outlaw the technology beyond police use. While companies like Amazon and Microsoft have paused their facial recognition work with police over ethical concerns, the technology is still being used by businesses, which can provide that data to law enforcement agencies. 

In July, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that San Francisco police used a downtown business district’s camera network to monitor protesters, blurring the line between public and private surveillance. 

Researchers have frequently found issues with facial recognition algorithms when it comes to racial and gender bias, regardless of who’s using the technology. And Detroit’s police department has admitted that its facial recognition misidentifies people “96% of the time,” with the technology leading to wrong arrests on multiple occasions. 

Private businesses often have lower thresholds for accuracy than government agencies do. Amazon recommends that law enforcement agencies use a 99% confidence threshold for its facial recognition algorithm, but not private businesses, for example. 

Private businesses also don’t have rules or standards to prevent the abuse of facial recognition. You could be banned from visiting a store and never know that it’s because the facial recognition system misidentified you as a shoplifter.  

Bans on facial recognition have come city by city, while federal lawmakers look to pass national legislation on the technology. Most of the legislation proposed in the last year has been focused on public use of facial recognition rather than on use by private businesses. 

In March 2019, two senators proposed the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act, which would prevent companies from collecting facial recognition data on people without their consent. 

The decision of Portland’s City Council goes beyond limiting the technology, and fully outlaws it.

“This is the first of its kind legislation in the nation, and I believe in the world,” Wheeler said. “This is truly a historic day for the city of Portland.”

The city’s mayor added that he hopes this legislation will inspire other cities to take on tougher regulations against facial recognition. Privacy advocates who supported the ban in Portland agreed.

“Now, cities across the country must look to Portland and pass bans of their own,” Lia Holland, an activist with the digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “And, Congress should act to pass bans at the federal level. We have the momentum, and we have the will to beat back this dangerous and discriminatory technology.”

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The ordinance bans both government agencies and private businesses from using facial recognition in Portland, with exceptions for individual use like unlocking your own phone or using a face filter on a social media app. 

Companies that violate the ban are liable to lawsuits and may be required to pay $1,000 a day for each day of the violation, according to the legislation. 

“We are a pro-technology city, but what we’ve seen so far in practice with this technology, it continues to exacerbate the overcriminalization of Black and Brown people in our community,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. Hardesty said facial recognition won’t be used in the city until problems are addressed and the fixes have been verified by independent sources.

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