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What is facial recognition and why is the City of Portland trying to regulate it?

News Article
The City of Portland is considering policies to regulate surveillance technologies in 2020. This post describes facial recognition and why city governments are considering regulation.

Facial recognition is a type of surveillance technology that detects a human face for a specific purpose. It may extract biometric data (measurements related to human characteristics) from that individual. Biometric data can verify an individual’s identity. Unlocking phones and accessing facilities use verification of biometric data. 

Facial recognition technologies use a person’s face, which is part of who that person is. Other surveillance systems use devices to track spaces or people’s behaviors. You can leave your cellphone at home, but you cannot get rid of your face. 

Surveillance technologies are sometimes used in criminal cases. Surveillance may also have an active goal of influencing, managing or directing social behavior. In criminal investigations, the use of surveillance technologies requires a court order. Yet, the emergence of new technologies has raised concerns on what, how and why surveillance information is collected. People have the right to know if they are being surveilled.

Journalists and activists have documented uses of surveillance outside of the law. Sometimes these abuses target specific individuals or groups. These cases create a sense of mistrust between over-surveilled communities and the government. 

Collection of biometric data without consent can be a violation of privacy and civil liberties. Individual rights are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Authoritarian governments use facial recognition as a method to identify ‘individuals of interest’. These persons may include social activists, dissidents and demonstrators.

The quality of  data used by facial recognition technologies to identify individuals is also a concern. Factors affecting the quality of these processes include image resolution, lighting, and perspective. Some facial recognition technologies access personal information about specific individuals creating privacy concerns. 

Biases and inaccuracies may result as a combination of the facial recognition process and image collection. The resulting false positives may create devastating consequences when law enforcement is involved. 

Beyond the collection of biometric data

The collection of biometric data is only the first step of surveillance. Information flows in data pipelines. Data gets stored in databases, and accessed by applications for a specific purpose. Each step creates a digital risk. Data breaches, non-specified uses, or unintended consequences lead to potential misuses or abuses. Systems with no oversight or proper policies need to comply to better data standards.

Now, there is increasing concern on the emergence of privately-owned surveillance systems. Systems without a clear due process are problematic. Due process is a collection of established rules and principles, and fair treatment of individuals. Additionally, data gets traded without informing the people whose personal data is included. A data service managing private and sensitive information must respect any individual's privacy. 

Smart City PDX is preparing a series of stories on facial recognition. The next post will provide an overview of Smart City PDX activities related to this topic.

Find more information on facial recognition on the websites of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Future of Privacy Forum.

The City of Portland is becoming a better data and technology steward. Smart City PDX is leading the way by developing policies and guidelines to support this effort. Facial recognition and surveillance technologies are key components for responsible and accountable technology.  If you want to learn more, visit our homepage.