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Businesses could challenge Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban

Portland recently held a working session with business representatives and civil rights groups to discuss the proposals.


The City of Portland is proposing what could be the strictest city controls on the use of facial recognition technology to date, but private companies have indicated they may oppose an outright ban.


In November, Smart City PDX, Portland’s data and technology division, released a draft ordinance that would ban the City of Portland from procuring or using facial recognition technology, as well as information derived from such systems.


The city is also considering similar measures to regulate the use of facial recognition in public places this includes public and private property open to the public, meaning retailers and other businesses could be affected.




The city has noted concerns about the use of facial recognition technology regarding privacy, data collection and processing, as well as errors and potential racial and gender bias.


At a recent City Council Work Session to discuss the measures, Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) said they support the regulation of private use of facial recognition technologies through transparent disclosure of use and data provisions. However, they also noted that individual companies represented by their organisations would be unlikely to support an outright 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, TAO.


As well as limiting security uses, such a ban would prevent private companies using facial recognition systems that recognise loyal customers when they enter a store, enabling them to send personalised offers and assistance, for instance.


"My belief is that we are not being anti-technology by raising these questions."


Mayor Ted Wheeler commented: “My belief is that we are not being anti-technology by raising these questions and asking, ‘How do we make sure, as this technology spreads and it’s deployed broadly, that we are protecting the interests of those in our community who have historically been steamrolled by some of these innovations’?”


“We want to help work to develop that technology and have Portland be a hub for that technology, while working in partnership around the kinds of rules, regulations, infrastructure and responsibility that we collectively share to responsibly deploy that technology so that it works for us rather than happening to us.”


A challenge to the tech community


Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty put the issue over to technology companies. “What I want to do is put a challenge out to the tech community. You want this technology – you need to get the community together and get the government together, and we need to figure out: how do we get it, and how do we make sure that the people who are developing a new technology that is supposed to benefit us all actually reflects the people who live in this community?” she said.


Two further public community forums will be held in February and March to discuss the issues further.


The meeting was also attended by the Portland Police Bureau and civil rights and equity groups such as Oregon and Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, Urban League, Verde, Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition and Freedom to Thrive.


Assistant Chief Ryan Lee, Portland Police Bureau, said that if properly managed, facial recognition technology could be a public safety asset, although noted that the Bureau is not currently seeking to use it.


Next steps


Smart City PDX and will put forward ordinances for Council voting in spring. It said any facial recognition ban may not be permanent but could give the city time to better vet technologies and shape policies.


“These policies are also the first step in a larger Smart City PDX effort to develop more comprehensive and inclusive privacy governance and oversight for the City of Portland, including the use of other surveillance technologies," a statement from Smart City PDX said.


Somerville in Massachusetts and San Francisco have banned the use of facial recognition technology by the city government.


Some believe a better way forward would be federal regulation around the use of facial recognition technology. However, such measures would be unlikely to go as far as the ones Portland is proposing.


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