The ACLU of Maine, People First Portland, and Portland City Councilor Pious Ali are among those calling for a preemptive ban on the use of facial recognition technology by city police. (Courtesy ACLU of Maine)
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City Councilor Pious Ali proposed banning the use of facial recognition technology in Portland in October 2019.

The proposal failed to gain much traction and kept getting pushed off the council’s agenda – until the recent protests against systemic racism that followed the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Now, several groups and individuals are trying to preemptively ban the surveillance technology before it can be used in the city.

Ali’s proposal finally came before the council again on June 15, although he proposed putting it off until the July 13 meeting to give councilors an opportunity to digest it.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali.

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. 

Ali said he proposed the ban because he believes the use of facial recognition is an overreach and invasion of privacy by the government.

“I think everyone who knows me knows I am a proponent of civil rights and privacy,” Ali said.

He said a government with this kind of technology is “scary,” and its use disproportionately impacts people of color.

“We know the history of this country,” Ali said. “In the not so very, very distant past, black people were pointed to and arrested for crimes they did not commit.”

Ali is not the only person who wants to ban the technology in Portland.

People First Portland, a campaign organization, has made banning facial recognition one of its five tentpole initiatives. The group, which includes former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, is seeking to place five items on the November referendum ballot via petitions.

Jake Karaisz, a People First Portland organizer, said the group favors an “aggressive and specific” ban that eliminated problems seen in other municipalities. For example, he said, a ban in San Francisco prohibited all city officials from using any such technology. Therefore, he said, it was technically illegal for city officials to use something like facial recognition to unlock their personal phones.

“Ours is just for police surveillance,” he said.

Ali’s most recent version of a ban resolution mirrors the People First Portland proposal. He said his initial version was too broad.

Karaisz said while the technology hasn’t become a factor yet in Portland, that doesn’t mean the energy won’t be there in the future.

“This comes very rapidly, and it changes very rapidly,” he said.

People First Portland is proposing what a leader of the organization calls an “aggressive and specific” ban on government use of facial recognition technology.

He said his group wants to be able to get out ahead of the technology, especially since it is a product sold by businesses to groups like police departments. He said any kind of recognition technology has the ability to be turned against people, noting for example that drones were developed to be used during war and are now being used for a variety of purposes around the country.

“Largely, we see facial surveillance as a human rights issue,” Karaisz said. “It treats everyone like a suspect. You don’t have to be accused of a crime to be a subject of this. It flips innocent until proven guilty into suspect until proven otherwise.”

Karaisz and Ali both mentioned a fairly recent case in Detroit, where a Black man was identified by this technology and was falsely arrested for stealing $3,800 worth of merchandise from a store he was nowhere near.

“That is a good example of what can possibly happen by using this technology,” Ali said.

Michael Kebede, a policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said his organization submitted a letter to the City Council earlier this year opposing the technology because it “poses a major threat.” He said the government can use this technology to track who a person associated with, if they are protesting, and where.

“It’s especially harmful to people of color,” Kebede said.

That notion was echoed by Karaisz and Ali, who said the technology routinely has shown an inability to accurately identify Black women and children.

“It flat out doesn’t work,” Karaisz said. “When it’s used to identify people with dark skin, it fails. It’s only about as good as a coin flip, so it’s random.”

If a prohibition is approved, Portland would join Boston as major New England cities to prohibit the technology. Kebede said the ban in Boston is proof Portland can do it and do it better. He praised work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for showing facial recognition technology has racially biased outcomes, and said it’s important for Portland leaders to recognize the inherent faults of the technology.

“This would suspend a digital whites-only sign around Portland’s neck,” he said. “… Black women interested in building a safe and stable life in Portland might be terrorized because Portland’s technology caused them to be arrested.”

The issue will return to the full council on July 13. Kebede said he believes recent Black Lives Matter protests may help increase support for a ban. He said Ali’s efforts kept sputtering in the fall and winter not because a ban is particularly complicated, but because there “was no political will.”

“They weren’t as willing to benefit back then” from the MIT research, he said. “But now the movement for Black Lives Matter has taken the country by storm, and suddenly there are members of the City Council expressing an interest. That’s great, that’s lovely.”