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Portland and Denver consider bans on municipal agency use of facial recognition



Portland’s data governance workgroup has published a draft of an ordinance which would prohibit local government agencies from using biometric facial recognition, the first official written proposal in what has so far been a deliberate process, according to GeekWire.

A companion ordinance which would prohibit private use of the technology is at an earlier stage in the drafting process.

A city council vote on the city government ban could be held next year, and if it passes Portland would join several U.S. cities in at least temporarily banning government agency use of the technology. Under the ordinance, any current uses of facial recognition would be subject to an internal assessment, though a spokesperson for Mayor Ted Wheeler said that as of September there was no deployment of biometric technologies by city agencies.

A spokesperson for convenience store chain Jacksons says two of its stores use facial recognition to approve or deny customers’ entry, and that the technology has been a remarkable deterrent against theft and safety threats.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is an outspoken opponent of facial recognition, however.

“The longer we wait, the more this technology will become spread through our community,” said Hardesty in an interview with local publication RedTail. “We have never been able to correct racially disparate systems. And so, if we put a system in place that we start off knowing will have racially negative, racially disparate outcomes, why would we do that?”

Several exceptions to the ban are noted in the draft. They include verification for access to electronic devices, social media applications, and detecting faces to obscure them.

Denver ballot initiative

A new campaign has been launched by a group in Denver to have facial recognition use by city government agencies banned, Westword reports.

The 5280not1984 campaign cites dangers of gender and racial bias, the high rate of false positives in testing by London’s Metropolitan Police, and the risk of data breach as reasons to propose a ban of the technology on the November 2020 ballot.

City police do not use facial recognition at this time, Denver Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kelli Christensen told Westword. The initiative would also prevent the technology’s use at Denver International Airport, which currently does not use facial recognition, according to the report.

“I have a lot of respect for law enforcement. The job they do is often difficult and thankless,” says Connor Swatling, a systems analyst and part of the initiative’s committee. “But we should try to make their jobs easier. This technology doesn’t do that. It’s difficult to integrate, it’s vulnerable to hackers and abuse, and you’re going to create a more systemic sense of distrust in police, and I don’t think that’s a good look for Denver.”

Swatling acknowledges that some city council members have expressed concern about the effects of such a ban on public safety.

As the West Coast cities consider their options, Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights Amos Toh writes in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times that regulation is necessary to contain the threat of facial recognition, as well as other types of AI-enabled monitoring, such as emotion recognition and intention prediction.

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