Portland passes expansive city ban on facial recognition tech

The city council in Portland, Oregon passed legislation Wednesday that’s widely regarded as the most aggressive municipal ban on facial recognition technology so far.

Through a pair of ordinances, Portland will both prohibit city bureaus from using the controversial technology and stop private companies from employing it in public areas. Oakland, San Francisco and Boston have all banned their governments from using facial recognition tech, but Portland’s ban on corporate uses in public spaces breaks new ground.

The draft ordinance proposing the private ban cites the risk of “biases against Black people, women, and older people” baked into facial recognition systems. Evidence of bias in these systems has been widely observed by researchers and even by the U.S. federal government, in a study published late last year. Known flaws in these systems can lead to false positives with serious consequences, given facial recognition’s law enforcement applications.

City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty linked concerns around high-tech law enforcement tools to ongoing protests in Portland, which have taken place for more than three months. Last month, the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed that it used a small aircraft to surveil crowds near the protest’s epicenter at the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland.

Hardesty called the decision to ban local law enforcement from employing facial recognition tech “especially important” for the moment Portland now finds itself in.

“No one should have something as private as their face photographed, stored, and sold to third parties for a profit,” Hardesty said. “No one should be unfairly thrust into the criminal justice system because the tech algorithm misidentified an innocent person.”

The ACLU also celebrated Wednesday’s vote as a historic digital privacy win.

“With today’s vote, the community made clear we hold the real power in this city,” ACLU of Oregon Interim Executive Director Jann Carson said. “We will not let Portland turn into a surveillance state where police and corporations alike can track us wherever we go.”

Portland’s dual bans on the public and private use of facial recognition may serve as a road map for other cities looking to carve out similar digital privacy policies — an outcome privacy advocates are hoping for.

“Now, cities across the country must look to Portland and pass bans of their own,” Fight for the Future’s Lia Holland said. “We have the momentum, and we have the will to beat back this dangerous and discriminatory technology.”