The leaders of four city departments are extolling the potential benefits of facial recognition technology and downplaying threats to privacy ahead of a scheduled vote Monday on a proposal to ban use of the technology by city officials in Portland.
Officials say the technology is not being used in the city at the moment. However, the directors of Portlands’s airport and seaport say it could be used to expedite customs processing.
And Police Chief Frank Clark said it could help in the future to solve crimes and identify exploited children, crime victims and people suffering from dementia.
“Facial recognition technologies and processes have and can be used to … identify persons who have directed substantive threats to a person, or groups of persons such as those at large events or mass gatherings,” Clark said.
The city’s technology director has warned of unintended consequences of the ban, saying it could affect future software purchases and prevent city officials from using some Instagram filters, animojis and other iPhone features.
Civil liberties advocates say they are continuing to advocate for a ban on the technology, which can be used for widespread surveillance of citizens and frequently misidentifies people of color. They say city officials are ignoring potential misuse and raising invalid concerns because the proposed ban would not apply to federal security agencies or personal use of smartphones.
“Many cities have already recognized this potential threat and are acting now to protect their residents,” said Michael Kebedem, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Portland and all of Maine should do the same, rather than waiting until the genie is out of the bottle.”
So far, California has adopted a three-year moratorium on allowing police to use the technology with body-worn cameras. And Massachusetts, which the ACLU says has used facial recognition since at least 2006, is considering a moratorium on facial recognition and “other remote biometric surveillance systems.”
A handful of communities in California, including San Francisco and Oakland, and Massachusetts, including Somerville, have also banned the technology.
Some U.S. communities, such as Detroit, began using the technology without telling the public. The proposed ban in Portland would effectively force city officials here to disclose plans and get approval from the City Council before adopting it.
City Councilor Pious Ali has proposed prohibiting city officials, including police, from using facial recognition technology, which can quickly identify individuals by comparing video or other digital images to existing photo databases, such as driver’s licenses, state IDs, passport photos and criminal mugshots.
Ali proposed the ban in November because of constitutional concerns and the rate at which people of color are misidentified. But the council put off a vote on the proposal until Monday.
Mayor Kate Snyder, who was sworn into office last month, said she hopes the council will refer the proposed ban to a committee for further study. She said councilors need to be fully aware of both the benefits and risks of any new technology, as well as the impact of the proposed ban.
“I really think we need to slow it down and put it through a council process that will allow for a lot more engagement,” Snyder said. “For me, it’s going to be important to have a deeper and more fully informed discussion about how Portland does or does not currently use this technology, how other cities and towns are using it, and what the right path for Portland may be.”
Ali said he’s open to further discussion, whether in a subcommittee or a workshop with the full council.
“That will give an opportunity for myself and others who support it to make the case about why we should put a hold or a ban on that technology, because it’s not regulated and it’s full of error,” Ali said.
In separate memos drafted over the last couple of weeks, four department heads – police, airport, seaport and IT – downplayed the potential for the technology to be used to conduct mass, unwarranted surveillance and instead highlighted its potential benefits.
The leaders stressed that the technology was not yet being used by city officials but could be coming in the future, especially at its ports of entry.
Department heads pointed to examples where the technology is already being used to enhance security by federal authorities and private companies. The proposed ban would not affect those uses, however, because it would only ban the city’s use of facial recognition.
Paul Bradbury, the director of Portland International Jetport, said in a memo that U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses facial recognition for international flights at 29 domestic airports, not including Portland. And two airlines – Delta and Jetblue – are deploying optional facial recognition boarding programs in the U.S. He said Delta is looking to have it in all of its hubs by the end of this year, but Portland is not listed as a hub by the airline.
Bradbury said the airlines would likely operate their programs on “the Jetport’s data backbone,” or network, and the proposed ban would prevent that.
Bradbury said that, even though it’s not being used in Portland, he expects it will be required by the CBP when Portland develops a Federal Inspections Services Facility to process international flights. But he said that info would only be accessible to the airlines and CBP.
“The facial recognition technology in use at airports is not a surveillance program,” Bradbury said. “The technology is simply replacing a manual identification check process with an automated process that is more efficient. Although the technology is currently limited to processing international flights, it is expected to spread to domestic flights.”
Kathy Alves, director of public buildings and waterfront, which includes facilities used to process cruise ship passengers, said that the technology could be used by federal officials to speed up customs processing. She said it currently takes about 90 seconds for customs officials to process a passenger, and that wait could be reduced by 15 seconds per passenger.
“This makes for an extremely long wait for most passengers to be processed as CBP is unable to properly staff the facility,” Alves said. “Therefore, Portland is not providing the opportunity for visitors to maximize their stays.”
Alves said in a memo that passenger information would not be accessible to city employees and would be deleted by custom officials when ships depart, so it’s unclear how the proposed ban would impact the ability of federal officials to implement the technology here.
Alves was not available for an interview Thursday.
Meanwhile, Police Chief Clark urged the council to reject an outright ban. He noted that the technology could be used to help solve a host of crimes, including identifying unconscious crime victims, exploited children and elderly people with dementia.
While stressing that the department has no plans to acquire and use the technology, Clark said he would “pledge to bring such a request forward to the City Administration and City Council for further public discussion.”
Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine, said that violent crime is declining in Maine and the United States, and that police and other security agencies should be required to make a strong case before implementing the technology.
“I am not convinced that Portland needs to be pushing the envelope on investigative techniques,” McQuade said. “Portland is a remarkably safe city. Chief Clark doesn’t make the specific case that Portland needs facial recognition for pressing crime problems.”
USM’s Criminology Department drafted a letter in support of the proposal that it plans to send to the city manager, council and mayor.
Kebedem, of the ACLU of Maine, said residents have a right to be concerned about the technology.
“When we talk about face recognition technology, we are talking about giving the government the ability to perform undetectable surveillance on all of us, everywhere, as we go about our daily lives,” he said. “Suggesting that we shouldn’t worry about the privacy and due process implications of that power is ludicrous.”