Portland Commissioner Floats Penalty for Business Facial Recognition Use

A Q&A with Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland's first black woman on the city council, who considers banning facial recognition a matter of civil rights.

What you’ll learn in this article:

  • Portland, Oregon City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says the city should ban government, police and private use of facial recognition to prevent the spread of tech that has a disparate impact on people of color.
  • Hardesty said if a ban on private use is approved, the city might establish financial penalties for violations by businesses.
  • She said she has no trust in what law enforcement — which she referred to as paramilitary organizations — say they are doing with citizens’ private data.

joannhardesty_bullhornPortland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty does not mince words. She wants a ban on facial recognition in the city and she wants it by November. Not only is Hardesty against government and police use, she wants private use of the controversial tech to stop, too.

That means use of the tech for things like employee identification in the workplace would be banned. And, a convenience store in Portland would have to cease its use of facial recognition tech from Missouri company Blue Line Technology.

RedTail’s Kate Kaye spoke with Hardesty by phone on September 20, a few days after the city held its first work session dedicated to devising a facial recognition policy. (You can read more about that in Kate’s story in Geekwire.)

The first black woman to be elected to Portland City Council, Hardesty considers a ban on the surveillance tech a matter of civil rights in a city and state with a history of institutionalized racism and redlining.

“The longer we wait, the more this technology will become spread through our community,” said Hardesty. “And it’s really important: One of the points that I want to keep reiterating is that we have never been able to correct racially disparate systems. And so, if we put a system in place that we start off knowing will have racially negative, racially disparate outcomes, why would we do that? Across the board, every time we get started with those disparities, those disparities don’t disappear.”

“If we put a system in place that we start off knowing will have racially negative, racially disparate outcomes, why would we do that?”
– Jo Ann Hardesty

Hardesty said she was “appalled” by the use of facial recognition tech in a Jacksons convenience store in Portland. Though she said she wasn’t sure how the city would monitor for compliance with a private-use ban, there “probably” would be a financial penalty for businesses caught in violation.

She also suggested the police force is not trustworthy when it comes to data gathering about Portland denizens. A longtime critic of the Portland Police Bureau, Hardesty said she worried about use of facial recognition and other identification technologies by local law enforcement, referring to them as a “paramilitary organization.”

Here’s an edited version of Kate’s September 20, 2019 talk with Hardesty:

Kate Kaye: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler supports a ban on Portland city agency use of facial recognition. He didn’t weigh in yet on the private use question. But through his spokesperson, he did say he would not want any ban to impede the police department from doing work that they’ve started if they indeed were using the technology. He wouldn’t want to impede police from continuing with an investigation, for example.

Are you aware that was his stance?

Jo Ann Hardesty: Not a surprise to me. As police commissioner, it’s not a surprise that he would have that caveat. As far as I know, today, the police are not using that kind of technology. I stop the body cams every time they try to bring it to city council. In fact, I have a question about whether or not they’re still using license plate readers. And so we’ve asked the police to give us a memo about what they’re doing today and what they anticipate they want to do tomorrow.

But if Washington County, which is one of our joining counties, is any indication, I’m kind of appalled that a police department would have a secret agreement with a private company to scan data off of the Ring [camera doorbell system].

[Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office has used Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software. However, the department decided against partnering in Amazon’s Ring network according to The Oregonian. Several police departments around the country partner with Ring to obtain camera footage from homeowners without a warrant.]

And so for me, I don’t care what the police want. Because it is not about what the police want. It’s about how do we protect people’s right to privacy. How do we make sure that they have consent to actually gather the public’s information? And quite frankly, you know, good old-fashioned police work is not about monitoring and scanning people, it is really about actually going out and having those conversations with people. So my expectation is not that there will be any slowdown based on what Portland Police may or may not want.

“Good old-fashioned police work is not about monitoring and scanning people.”

KK: Since you’ve been very vocal about wanting this ban, have you heard from any businesses or any private entities that use this technology now? I mean, there’s a store on SE Grand Avenue [in Portland], a Jacksons Food Store.

My story that ran [September 20] on Geekwire includes a bunch of comments from a spokesperson from that company. I asked him what the company thinks of the concerns around the fact that these technologies are inaccurate, especially when it comes to identifying women and people of color. And he said [paraphrasing], safety is our top priority, and our employees and customers are safer because of this. And we’ve prevented, we’ve deterred crime because of having this technology installed.

Just curious to know if they’ve reached out to you at all.

JH: They have not reached out to me. My initial concern, prior to finding out about the Washington County Sheriff’s use [of facial recognition technology], originally, I heard about it, quite frankly with this grocery store. And I said to myself, I would never shop in a grocery store where you are going to take my picture before you’re going to allow me to come in. And so, I would think that actually their business would be impacted negatively.

KK: In a KGW8 story about the Jacksons store’s use of facial recognition, there were interviews with customers who seem to say they liked it.

JH: Well, I can assure you that that would not be a store that I would shop at. I find it absolutely appalling that in order for me to do some basic shopping, that you need to take an image of me and then keep it just to make sure that I don’t steal from you.

So the way that their technology works, Jacksons told me, is that they store images for 48 hours. And if you are not a match in their system as someone who’s previously stolen something, or committed some theft or some sort of crime — it’s very nebulous what their criteria is — then they purge the data. After 48 hours they say it’s not in there anymore.

But who decides whether someone’s image is purged or not and according to what criteria?

JH: The other problem is currently, the technology is flawed to identify women, and people of color, specifically African Americans. African American women continually show up as African American men.

So, again there is no good reason why we would allow companies — and let me just say, just because they tell us they only keep it for 48 hours — why would I believe that?

KK: That gets me to the next question. One of the things Smart City PDX is really thinking about is, in the situation of a private ban, what would they do when it comes to monitoring for compliance? How would they do that? And so that’s really a big question, and you kind of touched on it in that last statement about the store. How do we know if they’re really doing what they say they’re doing.

So, how do you envision monitoring?

JH: For me, that’s one of the big outstanding questions, right?

…. Is there a civil penalty or is there a criminal penalty? Because we could go either way. So I haven’t made a decision one way or another. But I think there must be penalties for actually using this technology when it’s banned in this city. And I think for private businesses, the penalty will probably be financial, because we want to make it financially unattractive for them to actually use this technology.

“I have no trust in our paramilitary organizations that tell us to trust them and what they’re doing with our private data.”

The other thing that I will say is that the city of Portland has a history of collecting data on people, even though the police tell us that they’re not. A great example was, maybe almost two years ago now. The auditor of the City of Portland did an audit on the Portland police bureau’s gang enforcement unit. We had been told that the police were no longer keeping a list of people that they perceived as gang members, and the auditor found that they still had lists. They had a list that had hundreds of names on it and then they had [another] list that no one knew how they got on.

What we know is that government has misused our information that they’ve gathered. And they’ve given us misinformation about what they did with that data.

I have no trust in our paramilitary organizations that tell us to trust them and what they’re doing with our private data.

KK: That’s a strong statement. You consider the police bureau a paramilitary organization?

JH: No question. No question. I mean, if you look at how it happens all across the United States, it has a negative impact mostly on the African American and other communities of color.


Hardesty concluded the conversation by emphasizing her goal for a facial recognition ban in Portland by November. Watch for Kate’s updates on Portland’s facial recognition and surveillance tech policy here in RedTail and in Geekwire.

About Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is a journalist who tells deeply-reported stories with words and sound. Her work has been published in Protocol, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, OneZero, Fast Company, and many other outlets, and it’s been heard on NPR, American Public Media’s Marketplace and other radio programs and podcasts. Kate has been interviewed about her work across the media spectrum from Fox’s Stossel show to Slate and NPR’s Weekend Edition. Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KateKayeReports

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