On Wednesday, Portland lawmakers will vote on what could be the strongest facial recognition ban in the United States.
In November 2019, city officials revealed they were crafting legislation that would ban the use of facial recognition technology by both the public and private sector, prohibiting its use by state agencies but also its use by retailers, employers, and other private businesses—the first proposed ban on private use in the U.S.
After a City Hall session attended by technology companies and local businesses in late January, the private sector has ramped up lobbying efforts to undermine or end the legislation. Since late last year, Amazon has spent $24,000 silently lobbying Portland city council commissioners to soften the legislation’s language and create loopholes or exemptions in the facial recognition ban.
The company has been slow to abandon racist technology such as facial recognition, and Amazon profits off of infrastructure it sells to federal agencies like ICE, who use Amazon tech to help them arrest and detain immigrants in crowded detention camps. Last year, Amazon shareholders shot down non-binding resolutions to curb and audit the company's provision of facial recognition technology to governments. The resolution would have barred sales that would result in civil liberties violations, and requested an independent human rights and privacy impact study on Amazon's technology.
Earlier this year, Amazon announced it “stood in solidarity” with the George Floyd uprisings and announced a one year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition facial recognition software, a technology consistently found to be rife with racial bias. Police departments, however, are not the users of Rekognition—Amazon’s curated list of non-police clients is a long one, but it misses a few such as the NFL, CBS, and National Geographic.
Amazon’s concern here (and that of other technology firms and lobbyists) is that the law could create a nationwide legal precedent. It could not only kill a key Amazon Web Services (AWS) product that pads its bottom line and fuels its monopoly on cloud services, but also ban other forms of data extraction the company currently enjoys.
OneZero reported in July that the legislation was shaping up to go even further still: the law would "set in motion plans to create broader-reaching policy addressing surveillance systems that gather voice, visual, location, or biometric data.” AWS’ bottom line is a key driver of growth for Amazon’s various monopolies across the digital economy, as well as a key way to acquire leverage against competitors. All of that disappears if Portland inspires cities across the country to adopt strict bans and limitations on data extraction by private entities.
The results could be especially impactful with national attention on Portland, where protests against police violence have continued for over 100 days and police have responded to crowds by shooting tear gas and rubber bullets.
"With these concerning reports of state surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and the use of facial recognition technology to aid in the surveillance, it is especially important that Portland prohibits its bureaus from using this technology," said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in a press statement. "Facial recognition tech, with its gender and racial bias and inaccuracies, is an intrusion of Portlanders' privacy. No one should have something as private as their face photographed, stored, and sold to third parties for a profit. No one should be unfairly thrust into the criminal justice system because the tech algorithm misidentified an innocent person."
Despite this, Portland’s private sector, including Amazon, are insistent that there are benefits to facial recognition technology. In a letter from the Portland Business Alliance—greater Portland's Chamber of Commerce—the group wrote that "technology is not inherently good or bad" and it is only specific uses which need to be regulated, lest innovation be hurt and Portland's technology industry suffer a negative impact. Instead, the Alliance proposed solutions that would preserve the technology, such as ensuring only "high-performing facial recognition technologies" were used in ways "that would reduce, rather than exacerbate, racial bias."
Another letter sent by the Security Industry Association in July tried to argue that facial recognition was actually necessary because of the pandemic: "touchless access control solutions are more important than ever as we work to protect essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic."
There is little evidence that facial recognition technology is anything but a vector for racial bias. Last year, a comprehensive federal study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the technology was inherently biased. Facial recognition, along with the technologies and infrastructures that extract data to fuel it and other forms of surveillance, currently dominate our cities. The “solutions” proposed by tech companies simply legitimize the widespread proliferation of surveillance and encourage us to think about the best way we can be surveilled—instead of whether surveillance should be happening at all, given the huge disparities in who gets surveilled and why.