Portland City Council bans use of facial recognition technology

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After nearly a year of discussions and delays, Portland city councilors on Monday night approved a prohibition on the use of facial recognition technology.

The ban was approved unanimously and will take effect within 30 days. Portland will join Boston as the second New England city to prohibit the technology.

The ban was proposed last October by Councilor Pious Ali, and initially failed to gain traction on the council. But the issue gained support in the spring, especially after protests against systemic racism that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The Portland City Council met remotely Aug. 3, and unanimously approved a ban on the use of facial recognition technology. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Ali’s proposal was eventually revised to more closely resemble a proposal from People First Portland, an organization that has campaigned to place a citizen initiative on the November ballot.

Ali said he wanted to align his proposal with the one from People First Portland because theirs was much broader. He said several companies have already agreed to stop selling this equipment to police departments across the country, because it has shown a racial bias when identifying faces, disproportionately misidentifying Black people. He cited an instance in Detroit, where a Black man was arrested in his home after being identified by this kind of technology for a crime he did not commit and was nowhere near.

In past interviews, Ali has called the technology an “overreach” and “an invasion of privacy” by the government.

Facial recognition technology uses software to map facial features from photographs or videos. It can be used to compare images in a database to identify or verify a person’s identity. 

Banning this technology was also a demand from Black Lives Matter protesters around the country, including in Portland, following Floyd’s death.

Portland councilors, however, amended the proposal, removing a provision of enforcement against city employees who violate the ordinance.

Councilor Justin Costa also attempted to introduce an amendment to give the Portland International Jetport and the Port of Portland some level of exception, so as not to prevent future operations required by federal entities such as border patrol and the Transportation Security Administration.

His amendment was ultimately withdrawn, however, when councilors could not agree on the language. Costa said his goal was to simply comply with federal agency requirements.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said the council could take these issues up at a later date, as they would be required to if the airport plans to expand international travel offerings.

Ali had questions over what would happen to his proposal if the citizen initiative passes in November. Corporation Counsel Daniel West­-Chuhta said if passed, the measure on the ballot would take precedence. The city may have to seek judicial clarification of certain provisions, she said.

Although it took several months to accomplish, the final vote on Ali’s proposal was a relatively quick matter during the council’s approximately nine-hour meeting, which saw several hours of discussion about the homeless encampments at Deering Oaks Park and City Hall Plaza.

Towards the end of the meeting, councilors conducted first readings on the citizen initiatives that could be placed on the November ballot, including raising the minimum wage; establishing a Green New Deal for Portland; amending code to better protect tenants; restricting short-term rentals in the city; proposing no cap on cannabis businesses, and the ban on facial recognition technology.

These issues will all have public hearings on Aug. 31.

Lengthy remote meetings take a toll on councilors 

Portland city councilors became visibly and audibly frustrated Monday night during a marathon, nine-hour meeting that didn’t end until after 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Mayor Kate Snyder and members of the ad hoc committee for recommending nominees for the Charter Commission then had a 7 a.m. meeting just a few hours later.

The council has had an unusually busy summer, dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and clashes with police, having to create a new Charter Commission on the fly, and now an extended encampment at City Hall Plaza to raise awareness and change policies about homelessness.

Council agendas, which in other summers might have been light, are now packed and often require immediate action.

The overstuffed agendas and increasingly later nights have not been ignored by councilors, several of whom also work full-time jobs.

After 11:30 p.m. Monday, about seven hours after they started the meeting and roughly an hour and a half before it concluded, Councilor Spencer Thibodeau asked why they had such an “aggressive agenda” to begin with. He suggested the council to be more efficient with its time, or consider changing its biweekly schedule.

“I would rather meet weekly if this is going to be seven or eight hours,” Thibodeau said.

Snyder said the council has essentially already been meeting weekly, to accommodate special meetings that were not previously scheduled. She also said the Monday agenda had a lot to do with applicant deadlines and council action that was required before finances could be allocated.

“This is a pared-down agenda from where we started,” Snyder said, although she admitted some items have had the tendency to go “tremendously long.”

Snyder agreed the longer meetings are not ideal and said she would rather see the council move towards meetings that lasted four hours.

The council voted at 11:45 p.m. Monday to extend the meeting, although council rules require such a vote by 10 p.m. While there was talk about postponing many items until the Aug. 10 meeting, Councilor Justin Costa asked the council to keep going Monday, in an effort to keep the Aug. 10 meeting agenda light.

Councilor Nick Mavodones said he was inclined to postpone, but would tepidly agree to continue. However, he warned if councilors spoke more than their 10 allotted minutes, which he said they had all done “over and over,” he would have no choice but to move to postpone the remainder of the meeting.

It wasn’t just the long hours that had councilors visibly and audibly frustrated.

The council has been meeting remotely via Zoom since mid-March, which has presented several technical difficulties, including dropped calls, failed internet connections, and poor video quality.

On Monday, Councilor Kim Cook called in rather than participating in the video conference. At one point her line dropped, and Snyder said Cook’s phone number no longer appeared in the queue. Councilors assumed she was no longer in the meeting, and conducted several roll-call votes without her, only to have Cook return to the line and say the clerk had skipped over her several times as she tried to vote.

“I have been trying to vote and not been called,” an irritated Cook said. “I heard the roll call and it skipped me.”

Snyder attempted to explain Cook’s number had disappeared, and Cook was allowed to retroactively record her votes.

Cook’s line later dropped from the meeting a second time, and she did not return.

Councilors have also been chastised about their facial expressions during meetings, particularly during public comment.

During last week’s public comment on non-agenda items, when the council allowed several people to speak regarding homelessness at City Hall and Deering Oaks Park despite it appearing on the agenda, members of the public accused councilors of scoffing, smirking, rolling their eyes, and not paying attention.

— Colin Ellis