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Portland is putting a foot down when it comes to facial recognition technology. Here's how the city is taking action to restrict facial recognition apps.

Are facial recognition apps banned in Portland? What the new law says

On January 1st, a revolutionary new law went into effect in Portland Oregon. The use of all facial-recognition technology by city departments was banned, including use by local police departments. Restaurants, hotels, and stores are also barred from using facial recognition apps.

The decision, made in a unanimous vote from the Portland City Council Commission last September, is the first to ban “private entities in places public accommodation” from using technology that identifies a person from a facial image. Similar ordinances from other cities currently allow privately owned businesses, like stores & eateries, the legal ability to use such technology. 


A growing number of other cities in the United States are banning their local governments’ use of facial recognition technology. Since May 2019, San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston all banned the use of facial surveillance from their cities’ agencies. However, what makes Portland different is its decision to prevent both local government & businesses from using facial recognition apps. 

Many cities and local governments use similar technology to automatically identify license plates, immediately connecting law enforcement to a driver’s records & address.

Better security

Silicon Valley has long advocated for facial recognition technology as a means to make life easier. Tasks like crime-solving, taking attendance in schools, and faster airport security have been named as potential uses for the technology. The practice has been proven useful in preventing fraud & identity theft. 

Current laws on the books in Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston do not prevent private citizens from using facial recognition software on private property, such as Apple’s Face ID feature for unlocking an iPhone or a Google Nest camera that can identify familiar faces.

Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are developing or have developed facial recognition apps with AI technology. Currently, Amazon & Microsoft sell such technology to government agencies, local police departments, and even prisons. 

Racial bias

However, facial recognition software has long been criticized by privacy advocates for potential misuse and built-in racial bias. In June 2020, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Detroit police department for the wrongful arrest of a black man made using facial recognition apps. This case contributes to the ACLU’s concerns that current technology is not as effective at correctly identifying people of color and women. 

One reason for the inaccuracies & biases stems from the images used to train this kind of software, which are overwhelming male & white.

The ACLU ran a test using Amazon’s facial recognition software, “Rekognition”, and found it incorrectly identified twenty-eight members of congress as criminals. Maryland police agencies have been accused of using facial surveillance more heavily in black communities and to target activists – using it to identify & arrest citizens partaking in the Freddie Gray protests, a man killed while in police custody. 

“Technology exists to make our lives easier, not for public and private entities to use as a weapon against the very citizens they serve and accommodate,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement back in September. 

International uses

The Chinese government currently uses facial recognition technology for mass surveillance of its citizens. The practice has been linked to the government’s crackdown and targeting of the Uighar Muslim minority located in the western part of the country. The expanding camera network looks for Uighars based on appearance and keeps records of their movements in public areas. 

National regulation

As of now, no U.S. federal guidelines exist to limit or regulate facial recognition surveillance. Communities and local officials are forced to make their own decisions on how to control the technology’s use. 

What do you think of the use of facial recognition software? Who should & shouldn’t have access to it? Let us know in the comments below.  

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