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Maine City Again Delays Vote on Facial Recognition Tech

Portland’s City Council voted unanimously to postpone voting on a proposal prohibiting the city from using facial recognition tech, which critics say infringes on civil liberties and often misidentifies people of color.

by Randy Billings, Portland Press Herald / January 7, 2020
Mercedes Mehling/Unsplash

(TNS) — The Portland, Maine, City Council voted unanimously Monday night to postpone voting on a proposal that would prohibit city officials from using facial recognition technology, which critics say infringes on civil liberties and frequently misidentifies people of color.

It was the second delay since City Councilor Pious Ali first proposed the ban in November. Councilors will take up the issue again on June 15.

Councilors were split about whether the ban was necessary since city staffers have said that they are not currently using the technology and have no immediate plans to acquire it. Some councilors argued that they should only discuss a policy if staff comes forward with a proposal to acquire and use it, while others wanted the council to be more proactive.

City Councilor Kimberly Cook urged councilors to either enact a ban or pass a resolution that would require staff to seek council approval before using the technology.

In pointing to the need for a formal statement from the council, Cook said that staff has drafted a request for proposals for a self-driving vehicle program on Commercial Street.

“We have a current example of how technology is being deployed or can be deployed when we haven’t weighed in,” Cook said. “We all change up here and … I think there’s some value in having some sort of formal letter or pronouncement that we will not be pursuing as a city facial recognition technology until there is an ordinance or the council has been consulted.”

But other councilors were comfortable that staff would consult the council before purchasing or rolling out the technology.

“There’s nothing before us and there’s nothing contemplated,” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said. “I trust what I’m hearing.”

Facial recognition technology has come under fire across the United States as it has become more ubiquitous, with some communities enacting total or partial bans.

The technology captures a person’s image in either a digital photograph or a video frame and can scan it against an existing database with identifying information, such as drivers’ licenses, passports of criminal mug shots. But studies have shown that the technology frequently misidentifies people of color, which critics worry can lead to false arrests.

Civil liberties advocates say the technology violates privacy by allowing for the mass surveillance of innocent people and has the potential for misuse. However, police and other governmental agencies say the technology can be used to solve crimes, including identifying missing or exploited children.

The Maine and Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the University of Southern Maine’s Criminology Department, have written councilors and the mayor urging them to support the proposed ban.

The ACLUs of Maine and Massachusetts said the technology is akin to having a bar code tattooed on your face that can only be read by the government to track one’s movement, habits and associations.

“Face surveillance is the final frontier of government tracking, enabling officials to track you not through a cellphone (which you can leave at home), but through your face – an immutable, physical characteristic you carry with you everywhere and cannot easily hide,” they said. “To maintain democratic control over the future of civic life in Portland, and to protect the rights of the most marginalized and oppressed, we urge you to support this crucial measure.”

So far, California has adopted a three-year moratorium on allowing police to use the technology with body-worn cameras. And Massachusetts, which the ACLU says has used facial recognition since at least 2006, is considering a moratorium on facial recognition and “other remote biometric surveillance systems.”

A handful of communities in California, including San Francisco and Oakland, and Massachusetts, including Somerville, have banned the technology.

Some U.S. communities, such as Detroit, began using the technology without telling the public. The proposed ban in Portland would effectively force city officials to disclose plans and get approval from the City Council before adopting it.

While some councilors were comfortable waiting for staff to bring forward a proposal before taking up the issue, City Councilor Justin Costa said the council should be proactive, since staff already have identified potential uses with law enforcement and to process cruise ship passengers at points of entry and for boarding airline passengers.

“If we wait for something very specific to come along, I think it’s already going to be too late,” Costa said.

©2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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