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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. (City of Portland Photo)

Some lawmakers and concerned citizens want Portland to blaze a facial recognition ban trail by outlawing private use of the technology. But the city’s mayor has signaled that even a full prohibition on police use is questionable. And at least one private business in the city says a facial recognition system it installed in 2018 has prevented crime.

A small gathering of lawmakers, city agency officials and experts on data privacy and biometric identification tech met Tuesday at Portland City Hall in the first official work session dedicated to devising a facial recognition policy.

Unlike other city-wide bans that stop at government use, a proposal with support from Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty would make the controversial technology off-limits to Portland businesses such as retailers using it to discourage would-be thieves from entering their stores, or corporations using it for employee identification and surveillance.

In the City of Portland, no agencies use facial recognition systems, according to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office. The same goes for the police department.

However, the mayor indicated that if the Portland Police Bureau were to use the controversial technology, he might not stand in the way.

“We are not aware of any facial recognition technology being used by the Portland Police Bureau; if that is the case, the proposed ban should not impede the PPB in their work,” a spokesperson from Wheeler’s office told GeekWire. “The Mayor understands that even with a ban in place, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.”

Police representatives who spoke at the meeting suggested the bureau might want access to data from facial recognition systems “post-hoc” or after a situation occurs, when conducting investigations, rather than in a real-time scenario.

Hardesty also spoke during the meeting. She noted her concern about the use of connected doorbell systems such as Amazon-owned Ring, which has been criticized by civil liberties advocates. The company partners with 400 police agencies using its Neighbors Portal, which allows Ring owners to share camera videos, report local crimes, or merely complain about people they suspect of wrongdoing.

“I am very worried about private companies collecting data and storing it and then making sweetheart deals with law enforcement so that they get access to that data,” said Hardesty during the meeting, after referencing Ring.

All sorts of private entities use facial recognition systems, from retailers hoping to discourage theft or acknowledge high-value customers to businesses using it for employee identification and surveillance.

Civil liberties and privacy watchdogs say widespread use of facial recognition by government agencies or in commercial settings could turn the places we live into invasive surveillance states. Studies and tests have shown that some facial recognition systems fail to accurately detect women or people with darker skin tones. A collective of organizations including Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Greenpeace, Mijente and the Muslim Justice League support a federal ban on facial recognition, calling the technology “unreliable, biased, and a threat to basic rights and safety.”

“We need to take a strong stance that the automated surveillance state is not welcome in the City of Portland,” Hardesty said this week. She would like Portland police and community members to join city commissioners at a follow-up work session before any concrete policy is crafted.

While Wheeler’s office told GeekWire the mayor supports a ban on facial recognition tech by all Portland city agencies, he is holding back on the private use question for now. Deciding whether to ban biometric surveillance tech use by private entities would be a matter of legality and governing ability, his spokesperson said.

“The Mayor recognizes the pros and cons to both sides of the argument, but will need more information, and time to make an educated decision on the matter,” added the spokesperson.

Facial recognition at a convenience store

(Facebook Photo / Jacksons)

The Jacksons Food Store at 621 SE Grand Avenue in Portland began using facial recognition in November 2018. For the Idaho-based company, when it comes to its use of the technology, the promise of safety for customers and employees outweighs concerns about privacy or faulty systems that misidentify customers, said company spokesperson Russ Stoddard. Jacksons has two stores that employ facial recognition; the other is in Tacoma, Wash. at 3740 Pacific Avenue.

“We’ve found it to be a remarkable deterrent since we’ve installed it at the Grand Avenue store,” Stoddard told GeekWire. He said the company does not release data related to theft or crime at its stores, but noted, “on the qualitative side, customers and employees have both responded favorably to the change and report that they feel safer shopping and working at the two stores.”

Jacksons employs facial recognition software from Missouri company Blue Line Technology, which sells to markets including retail, education, corporate, and more.

According to Stoddard, when in use at the two Jacksons stores, the technology’s camera captures images of people entering the store. He said the image data is not accessible online or stored on third party servers. Those images are stored in a database for 48 hours then purged, except in cases when someone steals or commits some other violation.

Who decides whether the retailer stores facial images beyond 48 hours, or according to what criteria — or whether such a decision is subject to any legal ruling — is unclear.

It’s possible that these systems could misidentify people or can be used in ways that could infringe on civil rights such as the right to enter a store.

“As all of these biometrics come forward, if we don’t have rules in place to constrain improper uses then as they come forward they’ll just come in like the flood and we’ll have all these negative uses,” said World Privacy Forum Executive Director Pam Dixon, a Portland resident who provided expertise at the meeting.

Supporters of a Portland ban on non-government facial recognition use suggest there is legal ground for one based on a Ninth Circuit court ruling in August. The ruling rejected Facebook’s argument that plaintiffs suffered no concrete harm when it gathered and stored their facial data in conjunction with its photo tagging feature.

Monitoring for compliance with a ban on private use could be tricky, suggested Hector Dominguez, open data coordinator at the City of Portland’s SmartCityPDX group, which is helping guide the development of a policy addressing facial recognition and other surveillance technologies. The group will assess necessary resources and potential financial costs of enforcing any ban on facial recognition use.

Ultimately, said Dominguez, a facial recognition policy proposal is not expected until November.

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