The Portland City Council yet again postponed a vote on a measure that would prohibit city agencies from using facial recognition technology, which studies have shown misidentifies people of color more often than white people.

Concerns about that technology have been amplified by recent protests over the death of George Floyd and calls to defund law enforcement agencies. Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have announced they will not sell their facial recognition technology to police for now. Portland could be the first city in Maine to enact such a ban, but other communities across the country have taken similar steps.

Councilor Pious Ali first proposed the ban last fall, but the council has delayed a vote on the proposal for months. Some councilors argued that they should only discuss a policy if staff actually wants to buy and use the technology, while others wanted to be more proactive.

Ali asked on Monday to postpone again so they could consider an updated version of the proposal. The councilors agreed to push the item to July 13, and those who spoke hinted that they would ultimately support the ban. They did not address the broader questions about or concerns with facial recognition technology during the brief discussion.

“I’m a likely yes on this,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said. “I think this is a good step.”

City staffers, including the police chief and the airport director, have said they are not currently using facial recognition technology and have no immediate plans to acquire it. But they opposed an outright ban, saying the technology could be helpful to public safety in the future.


“We acknowledge that there are many ways in which facial recognition technology can be used, and that some of those uses may cause public concern related to privacy, civil rights and civil liberties,” Chief Frank Clark wrote in a December memo. “We also believe that carefully considered policies and practices can effectively mitigate these related concerns.”

Facial recognition technology has become increasingly controversial as it has become more widespread.

The technology captures a person’s image in either a digital photograph or a video frame and can scan it against an existing database with identifying information, such as drivers’ licenses, passports or criminal mug shots. But studies have shown that the technology frequently misidentifies people of color, which critics worry can lead to false arrests.

Civil liberties advocates say the technology violates privacy by allowing for the mass surveillance of innocent people and has the potential for misuse. However, police and other governmental agencies say the technology can be used to solve crimes, including identifying missing or exploited children.

Some cities implemented the technology without informing the public. Among them, Detroit has since approved certain restrictions on its use; for example, it cannot be used to determine a person’s immigration status. Others, like San Francisco, have banned city agencies from using it. Boston recently announced that it would consider a similar ban. And Portland, Ore., has proposed prohibiting its use not only by government agencies but also private businesses.

At the state level, California has adopted a three-year moratorium on allowing police to use that technology with body cameras. Oregon is among the states with  a similar law in place. And Massachusetts is considering a moratorium on facial recognition and “other remote biometric surveillance systems.”

The council moved the proposal to July 13.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: