Portland adopts landmark facial recognition ordinances

Portland adopts landmark facial recognition ordinances
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The Portland, Ore., City Council on Wednesday unanimously adopted two landmark ordinances banning city and private use of facial recognition technology.

The first bars all city bureaus from acquiring or using the controversial technology with minimal exceptions for personal verification.

The second blocks private entities from using the software that scans faces to identify them in all public accommodations.

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That second ordinance goes beyond the steps other cities, like Boston, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have taken to limit government applications of facial recognition.

"What makes Portland's legislation stand out from other cities is that we're prohibiting facial recognition technology use by private entities in public accommodations," Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) said during Wednesday's deliberations.

"This is the first of its kind of legislation in the nation," he added.

The bans will take effect in January 2021. Limited exceptions exist in both ordinances for personal use of facial recognition, like for opening smartphones.

Facial recognition has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months amid nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism launched by the police killing of George Floyd.

The technology has been criticized for replicating existing racist and sexist biases within society.

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency within the Commerce Department, released an expansive study in December that found that the majority of facial recognition systems have “demographic differentials” that can worsen their accuracy based on a person’s age, gender or race. 

"With these concerning reports of state surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and the use of facial recognition technology to aid in the surveillance, it is especially important that Portland prohibits its bureaus from using this technology," City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty said in statement before the ordinances' passage. "Facial Recognition tech, with its gender and racial bias and inaccuracies, is an intrusion on Portlanders' privacy."

Tech giants like Amazon, IBM and Microsoft have scaled back their sales of the software to law enforcement in response to the criticism.

Despite growing scrutiny, federal efforts to regulate the technology have stalled, leaving city governments in the driver's seat.

All eyes will be on Portland now to see how these ordinances play out.