Portland Considers Ban on Facial Recognition Technology

Maine's largest city is considering a ban on its employees using facial recognition technology.

Monday night, Portland's city council passed a motion to postpone a vote whether or not to prohibit city agencies from using it or data gathered by third parties using facial recognition.

The issue will be discussed again Jan. 6.

"I don't want to wait until it becomes more complicated," said Pious Ali, one of the city councilors proposing the ban. "It's a proactive measure."

Beyond privacy, Ali is concerned about racial bias in facial recognition programs.

Last year, MIT announced it had found facial recognition programs misidentified black women at a higher rate than white men.

"It's not perfect," he said.

If Ali succeeds in pushing a ban through, Portland would join a small but growing number of U.S. communities with similar laws, including Somerville, Massachusetts, and San Francisco.

Portland's ban would not exclude any city entity, including its police department.

Some law enforcement agencies have used the technology before, but Portland is not actively using it.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are hoping Portland leaders make the call for facial recognition restrictions.

"What's particularly dangerous about this technology for governments is nobody asks us," said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU's Technology for Liberty program. "No one says, 'Do you consent to having your face tracked everywhere you go?'"

Crockford is concerned municipalities adopting the technology could lead to policies similar to ones in China, which NBC News reports will be rating Chinese citizens on a system based on how well they support their community and follow laws.

Facial recognition will be part of the suite of technologies used to track citizens.

"We should not follow down the path of an authoritarian regime," said Crockford.

The ACLU has some critics, including Amazon, which sells a facial recognition program to public agencies.

In a statement to NBC10 Boston and necn, Amazon said the ACLU is "knowingly misusing and misrepresenting its program to make headlines."

In another statement, Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said, "The ACLU is once again trying to make facial recognition appear dangerous and inaccurate. But independent testing from the federal government has consistently shown that facial recognition technology is highly accurate. It now exceeds the accuracy of humans at identifying faces."

Ali thinks the risks outweigh the benefits overall and hopes fellow councilors will feel the same way.

"I hope I have the five votes to move it forward," he said. "I want people in Portland, irrespective of who they are, to walk into City Hall, to be able to engage our police officers, to be able to walk anywhere in Portland and feel safe, that their privacy is not being invaded."

In addition to Portland, debates on facial recognition technology are happening in the Massachusetts cities of Cambridge and Springfield. The ACLU also says Brookline may vote on the topic this week, as well.

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