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City Council approves ordinances banning use of face recognition technologies by City of Portland bureaus and by private entities in public spaces

Press Release
Model legislation prioritizes racial equity and data privacy, serves public need and builds trust for stewardship of public data.


Today, Mayor Wheeler and Portland City Council unanimously voted to pass two ordinances that prohibit the use of face recognition technologies. Face recognition technology is an automated or semi-automated process that assists in identifying or verifying an individual based on an individual’s face. 
With policy development led by the offices of Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first ordinance—which bans the use and acquisition of face recognition technologies by City bureaus—will go into effect immediately and will apply to all City of Portland bureaus and offices.
The second ordinance will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and will ban private entities from using facial recognition technology in places of public accommodation and will be inclusive of all private entities in Portland.
“We must protect the privacy of Portland’s residents and visitors, first and foremost. These ordinances are necessary until we see more responsible development of technologies that do not discriminate against Black, Indigenous and other people of color,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “Until now, the City of Portland has not had comprehensive privacy policies in place to ensure that the use of a technology like face recognition does not harm the civil rights and civil liberties of Portlanders, and the use of flawed and biased technologies can create devastating impacts on individuals and families.”

Smart City PDX received comments from nearly 500 Portlanders

The bans address concerns around privacy and intrusiveness, oversurveillance, lack of transparency, gender and race bias. Portlanders need assurance that the City of Portland is not using untested technologies with demonstrated racial and gender biases, that compromise personal privacy, and that may wrongfully ensnare individuals in the criminal justice system.
“The historic and present day use of technology to repress and harm BIPOC communities makes it essential that we proceed with a safety first approach and these ordinances to ban use of face recognition technologies by City bureaus and corporations do just that,” said Dr. Markisha Smith, director, Office of Equity and Human Rights. The voices of those most impacted by face recognition technologies were centered in the development of the proposals. Collaborative and participatory policy making processes were used in research and policy development, including two City Council work sessions and a policy workshop. The City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s (BPS) Smart City PDX (SCPDX) program, in collaboration with Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, Office of Commissioner Hardesty and the Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR) spent the last year discussing the proposals with community partners. 
“This is an exciting opportunity to set a national example by protecting the right of privacy of our community members – especially those most vulnerable and overpoliced,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. “As highlighted by numerous studies, articles, and community feedback, the problems with Face Recognition Technology are almost too numerous to count, and I refuse to sit back and watch our right to privacy and our civil rights be stripped away so that corporations can make more money. The work is not over: facial recognition is only one of the dangerous automated surveillance technologies being rolled out in communities across the world, and I look forward to continue working with community members and my colleagues in looking at other problematic monitoring systems.”

What the ordinances mean

The ordinance on the use of face recognition technologies by City of Portland bureaus requires City staff to review and assess whether bureaus are using Face Recognition Technologies. Bureaus may only use Face Recognition Technologies for the following purposes:

  1. For verification purposes for bureau staff to access their own personal or City issued personal communication devices or computers. For example, bureau staff may use Face Recognition Technologies to unlock their own or assigned mobile phones or tablets; 
  2. In social media applications, which is regulated by the Social Media Policy: HRAR 4.08A; and,
  3. For the sole purpose of redacting a recording for release or disclosure outside the City to protect the privacy of a subject depicted in the recording. 

The second ordinance bans the use of face recognition technologies by private entities in places of public accommodation within Portland city limits. Where the ban would be implemented is based on the framework provided by State of Oregon’s definition that prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation.  
Places of public accommodation include any facility, both public and private, used by the public. Examples include establishments serving food or drink, sales or retail and service establishments, and places of recreation, public gathering, exercise, or entertainment. , The definition does not include: Commercial facilities operated by private entities, private clubs and religious organizations, private residence or place of accommodation that in its nature, is distinctly private. View the ordinance on the City Code Title 34 on Digital Justice for more details.
“City Council's actions are designed to protect residents and visitors from bias and will help us achieve a more equitable digital future for Portland,” said Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director Andrea Durbin. “The Smart City PDX program is researching how to implement effective assessment tools for the use of various surveillance technologies, including facial recognition.”

Next steps

Now that Portland City Council has approved the first proposal, BPS and OEHR staff will work with other City of Portland bureaus to implement the policy and serve as a resource to other bureaus to assess whether a technology is a Face Recognition Technology. BPS and OEHR will also focus on a comprehensive data governance and privacy and information protection framework for technology assessment in the coming year. Ensuring community involvement in the development of these procedures and policies will be central to the work.