On Wednesday, Portland’s City Council unanimously passed the toughest ban on facial recognition in the United States. The ban, which goes into effect in January 2021, prohibits both public and private use of facial recognition within the city.
This means that law enforcement agencies will no longer be allowed to use the tech. It also means that private businesses won’t be able to either. This differs from similar legislation seen in cities like San Francisco that only bans public use.
Portland cites issues with race and gender bias as well as general inaccuracy as the reasons for the sweeping new ban. It could set the stage for a larger fight against facial recognition in the U.S.
The new legislation in Portland is arguably the strongest crack-down on facial recognition since the tech became mainstream. That being said, it is warranted. Facial recognition is consistently unreliable. Its inaccuracy often leads to things like wrongful arrests and false identifications.
Due to the fact that the tech struggles to identify minority faces, this means it negatively affects people of color to a greater degree.
Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says, “We are a pro-technology city, but what we’ve seen so far in practice with this technology, it continues to exacerbate the overcriminalization of Black and Brown people in our community.”
She goes on to say that the tech won’t be used in Portland until these problems are addressed. The solutions that arise will be subjected to verification by external sources.
In the meantime, companies that violate the facial recognition ban will be required to pay a penalty of $1,000 per day of the violation. They’ll also be liable to lawsuits.
It is worth noting that the massive ban doesn’t include facial recognition for individual use. In other words, using it to unlock your phone or apply a face filter on Snapchat is still legal.
Setting Up a Fight
The new Portland legislation comes at a time when facial recognition is already a highly debated issue. Tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM have distanced themselves from it. The firms paused their work on facial recognition with law enforcement due to ethical and privacy concerns.
Unfortunately, the tech is still being used by businesses across a variety of sectors. Other facial recognition companies, like the notorious Clearview AI, are pressing forward despite the industry’s sentiment.
Thus far, bans on facial recognition have come on a city-by-city basis. Aside from San Francisco, Boston and Oakland have both passed their own laws that prohibit the tech.
These city-level bans have started a discussion at the federal level to determine if some sort of broad oversight is necessary.
Hardesty says, “I believe what we’re passing is model legislation that the rest of the country will be emulating as soon as we have completed our work here.”
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. If it does, that would probably be for the best—at least until companies are able to develop facial recognition systems that are free of bias.