Portland, Oregon has now joined parts of Massachusetts and all of California in protecting its residents from the sketchy surveillance method known as “facial recognition.” For something that’s supposed to recognize faces, it’s usually pretty bad at it and gets worse when it has to deal with minorities. Of course, the same can be said about the law enforcement agencies deploying it, which might explain their love of tech that gives them more people to arrest but rarely the probable cause to do so.
Portland’s ban is more restrictive than others already in place. It doesn’t just affect the local government.
In addition to halting city use of the surveillance technology, the new rule prevents “private entities in places of public accommodation” in Portland from using it, too, referring to businesses that serve the general public — a grocery store or a pizza place, for instance. It does not prevent individuals from setting up facial-recognition technology at home, such as a Google Nest camera that can spot familiar faces, or gadgets that use facial-recognition software for authenticating users, like Apple’s Face ID feature for unlocking an iPhone.
This means no one gets to use it but private citizens surveilling their own doorways. Sure, that’s going to capture people moving up and down the street, but unlike law enforcement agencies, private citizens can’t deprive someone of their freedom just because the tech thought it recognized someone.
The hit to businesses doesn’t take effect until 2021. The rest of it starts immediately. Portland is still in the throes of civil unrest — something that started in late May and shows no sign of letting up, no matter how many federal officers the Administration throws at the “problem.” There’s the obvious concern facial recognition is being used to identify people engaged in First Amendment activity for reasons unknown to anyone but those deploying the tech. The local cops will be blocked from doing this going forward (if they were ever doing it at all) but it will have no effect on facial recognition deployment by federal officers.
It seems inevitable some business owners will challenge the law. This tech allows internal security to keep an eye out for banned individuals and suspected shoplifters. But private tools don’t appear to be any better at identifying people than the tech being sold to government agencies. Allowing private companies to use the tech puts law enforcement only a phone call away. And it can lead to the same results (false positives, bogus arrests) despite being owned and operated by non-government entities. It’s a bold move by the city of Portland. But it’s probably also a necessary one if you’re serious about protecting residents from unproven tech that has the latent ability to destroy lives.
More bans are sure to come, especially now that everything law enforcement-related is under the microscope. Portland has set the ban bar pretty high. Other cities that believe they’re serious about keeping their residents safe from surveillance creep now have something to shoot for.