This story is a companion to a limited podcast series on Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban, Banned in PDX. Listen to this episode here and subscribe to the Banned in PDX podcast on Apple and at XRAYPod.com to keep up with the latest.
Overnights, employees at three Portland, Oregon convenience stores deploy a facial recognition system as a safety precaution. The company that made the system was founded by four former St. Louis police officers in the hopes of preventing masked criminals from robbing retailers. The convenience store uses the facial recognition technology to block people it has deemed unwelcome in its stores.
“We are all retired St. Louis policemen,” said Gabe Keithley, co-founder of Blue Line Technology, the small St. Louis-area tech firm that makes the facial recognition system used at three Jacksons Food Stores in Portland and at least one Jacksons store in Tacoma, Washington. The technology also is used at retail stores and a private school in the St. Louis area.
The former police officers worked with a chief technology officer to develop their software.
“We are all retired St. Louis policemen.”
– Gabe Keithley, co-founder of Blue Line Technology
“The robberies that were going on at convenience stores and different [retailers are] growing every year,” continued Keithley. “And they’re usually done between certain hours of the night, and most often times they’re being committed by someone who has a mask on their face.”
System Could Be Banned in Portland
Portland city council commissioners will vote on an ordinance later this summer that, if passed, would prevent retailers such as Jacksons from using facial recognition. It would also stop use of the controversial technology in other privately-owned places that allow public access such as laundromats, banks, hotels and private schools. The city will also vote on a companion ordinance that prohibits facial recognition use by city bureaus including Portland Police Bureau. (For details on the legislation, check out my reporting in OneZero.)
“If you are billing yourself as a convenience store, collecting my biometric data should not be a price that I pay to come in and spend my money,” said Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty during an interview with me in April. “You are providing a community service, and that community service should not make me give up my rights to my privacy and my own biometric data.”
Facial recognition technology is controversial for a variety of reasons. Studies have shown facial recognition algorithms are far less likely to be accurate when attempting to detect the faces of just about anyone who is not a white male.
“We have been vetted by independent distributors that said that our system did not perform to a lower level because of skin color,” said Keithley regarding Blue Line’s software. He would not provide further information on which organizations vetted the software or what their criteria were.
Civil liberties advocates worry use of facial recognition systems could enable an over-reaching police state fueled by ubiquitous surveillance that works in real time. There are concerns that the biometric data used in these systems will be stored indefinitely, shared, leaked or sold.
Neither Blue Line nor Jacksons has communicated opposition publicly to Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban. Blue Line is “kind of hoping those big facial recognition companies do that for us,” said Keithley.
“If you are billing yourself as a convenience store, collecting my biometric data should not be a price that I pay to come in and spend my money.”
– Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty
It turns out Amazon actually has fought Portland’s ban. The company, which makes facial recognition software, spent $12,000 late last year to lobby Portland government staff in hopes of stopping or weakening the proposed ban.
“If they [Portland city council commissioners] remove all private use of it [facial recognition] I don’t know how to get around that other than to say, well, that was fun,” said Keithley.
Only Two People Banned by Facial Recognition at Jacksons
Jacksons spokesperson Russ Stoddard said the Blue Line system is intended to be enabled each night between 8 PM and 6 AM. When people approach the store entrances, they are told via the system’s loudspeaker to “Please look in camera for entry.”
“There’s a camera and a speaker and a light outside, said Keithley. “When the camera senses motion the speaker kicks off.”
Jacksons first began using Blue Line’s facial recognition at its store on SE Grand Avenue in Portland in late 2018. By September 2019, Jacksons had set up the system at two more stores in Portland, both on NE Broadway. (RedTail was the first to report about this expansion.)
“It has been received very positively by our customers and employees since it has been introduced as an added safety measure,” Stoddard told me in January.
The Idaho convenience store chain has around 15 locations in and around Portland. Stoddard said the stores using the Blue Line system were chosen because they had experienced higher instances of crime than other Jacksons locations.
One female worker at the Jacksons store on SE Grand Ave in February said the system does not let her in until she takes off her glasses. Another worker said sometimes he has to move around until the system finally notices him, then unlocks the door. Jacksons workers said they could be fired if they talked on the record about the facial recognition technology.
Jacksons workers said they could be fired if they talk to the media about the facial recognition technology.
Despite the fact that countless customers and workers must pass through the facial recognition system each time they want to buy a pack of gum or simply start their work days, Jacksons has banned just two people from its stores, according to Stoddard.
“Quite frankly, I mean, I would want to talk to people who have been excluded to find out why they have been excluded and what they were told when the door didn’t turn green to let them in,” said Hardesty.
The retailer will not say who the blocked people are or exactly what they did to warrant banishment. Only one of them is alleged to have stolen from Jacksons in Portland. The other banned person allegedly committed a violation at a Jacksons in Tacoma. Both committed the alleged crimes in the summer of 2019.
System Looks for a Match, not Identity
Though many facial recognition systems are used to identify people, that’s not how the Blue Line system at Jacksons stores works.
When would-be customers look up at the Blue Line cameras, they capture their facial images. Then, rather than identifying them, the system checks to see if there’s a match to the facial characteristics of anyone who is not allowed to enter Jacksons stores. The software does not identify anyone because it does not tap into any information that could identify who those faces belong to.
It is not clear whether the system is really working as intended during the pandemic, when many people are wearing masks to protect against spread of COVID-19. Stoddard said Jacksons has advised its store employees to use a buzzer to unlock the doors for people if they are wearing masks to protect against COVID-19.
So, what happens to the face image data of people captured by the facial recognition cameras at Jacksons? Both Jacksons and Blue Line say the data is not accessible online. It is not stored on third party servers or in a cloud storage system. Rather, it is kept in a database physically stored at Jacksons headquarters in Idaho.
Unless someone is accused of theft or some other store violation, the data is purged by Jacksons after 48 hours. Blue Line stresses the company does not have access to any data used by its clients to operate its facial recognition system.
Police Reports, and a Mixed Review
The convenience chain devised its own policy for determining how someone is entered into the facial recognition system. According to Jacksons company policy, before anyone is banned from its stores and entered into the system, the store must file a police report regarding the incident.
After a police report is filed, Jacksons corporate staff review store security video footage to “verify beyond a doubt that a crime has occurred,” said Stoddard.
The company’s policy does not, however, require that the person accused of a crime is found guilty in a court of law before being banned from the stores.
“So the end user creates their own data, creates their own process and policy around it and they have their legal teams, and they really look through what they can and can’t do and how they should – like Jacksons does – what the process has to be to enter somebody into their system,” said Keithley.
One overnight employee at the Jacksons on SE Grand Ave in Portland called the Blue Line system a good psychological deterrent, and suggested it could prevent some theft.
But that same employee said he often sees people stealing from the store who are not banned in the system, despite the presence of the facial recognition cameras. And he said the process required to add people to the system’s ban list is just too burdensome to keep up with when he’s dealing with a rush of customers.
Will Portland ban facial recognition use at Jacksons stores on Portland’s east side?
Subscribe to the Banned in PDX podcast on Apple and at XRAYPod.com to keep up with the latest on Portland’s proposed ban, which could be the first anywhere to stop facial recognition in stores and other privately-owned spaces.