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Portland, Ore., Puts Crosshairs on Facial Recognition Tech

As cities draw hard lines over use of the rapidly developing technology, Portland's policy — with a unique focus on both private and public use — could mean a new standard for privacy protection.

Officials in Portland, Ore., are exploring a potential ban on facial recognition technology, which, unlike other cities, would place a moratorium not just on government use but on use by private-sector entities as well.

With public concern over biometrics rising, San Francisco and Oakland in California, as well as Somerville, Mass., have enacted bans on face recording by government agencies, and similar legislation is also being considered in a number of other cities. 

Yet Portland's hypothetical legislation — with its crosshairs on the private sector — would be the first of its kind. Though the legislation is still being formulated, officials believe a draft will materialize by November.

Adoption of a broader perspective on regulation that is inclusive of industry is not all that surprising, given the rise of facial recognition deployment by an assortment of companies and organizations — everything from major retailers like Target and Walmart, to air and cruise lines.  

The legislation is being championed by Jo Ann Hardesty, one of the city's commissioners, who is working with Portland's Office of Equity and Human Rights and Smart City PDX, an office dedicated to advancing IT and smart city initiatives.  

In all likelihood, there will be two separate ordinances — one focused on public regulation, and another on private, staff with Hardesty's office explained. These bills will likely seek to restrict use of the technology for certain purposes or in certain settings, instead of necessarily banning the technology outright, according to staff.

“On top of privacy concerns, facial recognition technology has been shown to present racial and gender bias and accuracy problems. I look forward to exploring regulating both government and private use of the software to protect Portlanders’ privacy and civil rights," Hardesty said in a statement to Government Technology

An initial work session on the policy was convened last week to educate those involved with the issues at play. A second work session, scheduled for early November, will serve as a prologue to the introduction of initial draft legislation, which will probably take place later that month, said Christine Llobregat with Smart City PDX.  

Until then, officials plan to conduct research and outreach, meeting with community groups and city bureaus potentially affected by biometrics, in an effort to inform the policymaking process, said Llobregat. Input from the public will be an important part of this process, said Hardesty's staff.       

Earlier this year, Smart City PDX adopted two frameworks that likely influenced the decision to pursue a biometrics ban: an equity priorities framework and a roster of data privacy and information protection principles, both of which seek to consider how technology can be utilized responsibly with respect to the city's communities. In particular, the privacy principles have pushed lawmakers to consider how the abstract notion of privacy might be instituted more concretely.  

Officials' first work session, which occurred during the Sept. 17 City Council meeting, revealed the considerations at play in the formulation process. 

“These are matters of privacy, consent and civil rights,” said Hardesty, during her remarks. “The technology is currently extremely biased against people of color and women. But even if these problems are improved on, automated surveillance and collection of people’s biometric data is unacceptable,” she said. “We need to take a strong stand that the automated surveillance state is not welcome in the city of Portland.” 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.