Rift emerges between regulators and businesses over Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban

Portland, Oregon. (BigStock Photo)

Portland still seems on pace to impose a dual ban prohibiting facial recognition use by both government agencies and private entities such as retailers and other businesses. But a City Hall session today illuminated what could become a more pronounced point of contention: some local businesses and tech firms could oppose a private-use ban.

“When using facial recognition technology for public safety and security, there’s definitely a lot of businesses that believe an outright [private-use] ban is something they will not support,” said Skip Newberry, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. (City of Portland Photo)

Newberry spoke at the City Hall session along with city commissioners, civil rights and equity groups, local law enforcement, and the Portland Business Association. Their testimonies will inform a future proposal for regulating private facial recognition use. The city council is expected to vote in April on the upcoming private use ban, along with regulations drafted last year that would stop government use and acquisition of facial recognition tech.

Local businesses such as shopping malls want to use emerging technologies in their stores, as well as sophisticated security systems, said John Isaacs, vice president of government affairs at Portland Business Association. There are facial recognition systems that recognize loyal customers when they enter a store, for instance. A ban on facial recognition tools could prevent those sorts of uses, he suggested.

Isaacs worried a strict ban on facial recognition could send a signal to businesses that Portland is not hospitable to the tech industry.

But Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler noted that the city “is not being anti-technology by raising these questions.”

Businesses are already using facial recognition to prevent certain customers from entering stores. Convenience chain Jacksons Food Stores recently expanded its use of the controversial technology in the city to three stores.

The ban is part of Portland city government’s broader efforts to devise policy for emerging technologies and data use that could have adverse impacts on marginalized groups.

Civil liberties and equity advocates participating in the discussion including the ACLU of Oregon and Urban League supported a ban. They sounded alarm bells, citing studies showing how facial recognition can facilitate inequity and racial bias against women and people of color through incorrect identification.

“Tech advances tend to increase the disparities between the haves and have nots,” said Alan Hipólito, director of special projects for Verde, a Portland environmental and social enterprise group. He petitioned Portland lawmakers: “Don’t let yourself fall under the spell of words like progress and innovation,” he said. “Skeptically question these assertions of innovation by asking, ‘Innovation for who?’”

Mayor Wheeler responded to Hipólito, suggesting that groups such as Verde and others focused on equity for marginalized communities might engage with Portland’s tech industry groups in the hopes of finding common ground.

“I think there’s a bridge building opportunity here,” he said.

Portlanders are not exactly known for direct communication, but the mayor’s comments sparked blunt responses from Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly.

“There’s an opportunity to pursue that after the ban,” said Hardesty, calling a ban “a great opportunity” for the city to “be a convener” and work toward development of technologies that are racially equitable. But, she stressed, “I think we have to do the ban first.”

Eudaly concurred, saying that facial recognition companies “are acting with reckless abandon and absolutely know they do not have the best interest of our residents at heart.”

“I agree with Commissioner Hardesty that we need to do the ban and they can come and do the conversations with the community and try to sell us on the merits of their product,” she added.

The mayor stressed, “We are approaching this with a sense of urgency.” He said Portland is taking proactive measures to safeguard marginalized citizens from potential harms now in part as a reaction to “big tech” firms that have “bulldozed local communities in the absence of federal standards.”

The goal is for the city to use technologies “with frontline communities being considered first as part of the conversation,” he said.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz reiterated her support for a ban. “I was ready to support a ban six months ago or so, at least until we figure out how to improve the technology,” she said.

Portland’s facial recognition ban discussions were influenced by San Francisco’s revolutionary ban in May on city government and police use of the technology. Similar bans were later enacted in nearby Oakland and places such as Somerville, Mass.

Many concerns related to government use of facial recognition relate to potential abuse by law enforcement that some worry could lead to a surveillance state. Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Ryan Lee told session participants that the bureau does not use facial recognition, has not sought to use it and is not seeking to use it now. He said if the bureau wanted to use the tech, it would create an oversight body and seek public input.

“PPB would not use live monitoring or … what has been referred to as surveillance monitoring,” he said.

An opinion write-up in The Oregonian earlier this month from The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation argued against a ban.

“Portland’s possible ban would prevent law enforcement from using facial recognition technology to find missing persons, catch identity thieves, improve security in crowded venues, and identify victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of crime,” the group wrote.

The Washington, D.C. think tank has board members who are lobbyists for firms including Amazon and Microsoft, both of which make facial recognition software.

During an interview with GeekWire last week, Portland’s Smart City PDX Open Data Coordinator Hector Dominguez questioned the article’s contention that facial recognition improves safety measures. “Improving public safety — we are not really totally convinced that that’s happening,” he said.

Despite disagreements between some in Portland’s tech industry and city commissioners, Hardesty implied there is room to work together. If tech firms and local businesses want to be able to use facial recognition technology, she said they need to work together with the city government and communities to create technology that actually reflects the people in Portland rather than discriminating against some of them.

“We’re here to help,” she said, “but it’s your industry; you’ve got to lead it.”

A ban on private use of facial recognition tech would impact companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. Both corporations sell related products, such as Amazon’s Rekognition software used by law enforcement agencies. They have been advocating for regulation of facial recognition technology at federal and local levels.

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