Portland, Oregon, might be best known as the home of bohemian stereotypes aplenty and some of the wildest donuts you can find in the state. Now it’s also earned the reputation for ambitious privacy legislation after passing the country’s broadest ban on facial recognition technology to date.
Yesterday, the Portland City Council unanimously adopted two major ordinances meant to crack down on the way the city uses this sort of tech. Facial recognition has gotten backlash for just about every reason under the sun, including its inaccuracy, proximity to humanitarian catastrophes, and entrenchment of racial biases. The first ordinance bars all city bureaus, like, say, the Police Bureau, from buying facial recognition software for their own purposes; the second keeps private companies from using similar software for their own purposes.
Successfully passing these ordinances makes Portland the 15th city to take a stand against facial recognition tech in general, though none of the other motions passed in cities like Boston, San Fransisco, or the other Portland have created limitations for the private sector.
This is a huge honking issue for two reasons: First, we know that private organizations like grocery stores and shopping malls have started adopting facial recognition at a pretty rapid clip to do everything from cracking down on shoplifters to retargeting consumers based on what they buy—and that shoppers are not always informed they’re being recorded in this way. Second, we know that cops have generally become pretty chummy with the private sector players in charge of this sort of tracking and targeting, in part because these partnerships allow public officials to bypass some of the many, many hoops that they’d typically encounter when trying to get that data themselves. Effectively, the second ordinance, while a public good in its own right, also closes the biggest loophole in the first.
In some ways, it’s fitting that this first-of-its-kind motion passed in Portland. For more than a month, the city has seen its police forces become obscenely violent in response to—ironically—local protests against police brutality. Portland’s police force also became the subject of an ACLU-led lawsuit in late July over its practice of “conducting illegal surveillance on protesters” via livestreams. The civil rights group contends that the “PPB livestream often zooms in on individual’s faces which makes protesters vulnerable to face surveillance technology.”