PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors postponed a vote to ban the use of facial recognition technology by municipal employees until July as they kicked off a wider review of police practices after massive protests over racism and police brutality.
The ordinance would prevent city agencies, including the police department, from using facial recognition technology or information from other systems that use the technology. City Councilor Pious Ali, who sponsored the measure, said in November that the increased use of recognition technology has come with “unintended consequences.”
A renewed push to ban the technology is one of several policy demands from racial justice advocates in Maine, who link mass surveillance and racial bias in the product design of recognition software as symptoms of broader unjust law enforcement practices.
Portland councilors defended City Manager Jon Jennings earlier this month after protesters called for his dismissal. But they have partially heeded calls from activists by setting a vote on the facial recognition ban as well as slating reviews of recent police conduct.
City councilors deferred action on Ali’s proposal around the election last November, pledging to take it up again once Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilor Tae Chong were inaugurated. Ali’s ordinance drew cautious support from most councilors last November, but some expressed concerns about how the ordinance would be applied at the Portland Jetport.
On Monday at a remote meeting marked by several councilors expressing commitment to racial justice issues, many expressed early support for Ali’s revised proposal, saying that it cleared up issues they saw in November but that more legal work should be done before proceeding.
Councilor Jill Duson noted Monday that Ali’s revised ordinance enables the council to ban facial recognition technology and revisit the issue down the line. She said it gives any future council to “lift the ban or revise the ban” if some element of recognition is seen as useful.
Use of facial recognition technology has grown among Customs and Border Protection and state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. An assessment conducted by the Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology found in 2016 that at least one in four police agencies could run facial recognition searches, either through a system they purchased or one owned by another agency.
Ali cited studies that found that prominent facial recognition technology is invasive and disproportionately misidentifies people of color, women and children, putting them at risk. One such study found that the Amazon’s facial recognition software Rekognition exhibited racial bias, particularly among darker-skinned women, who it misclassified 31 percent of the time.
Ali proposed the ordinance in part because Portland Police Chief Frank Clark told him at a school board meeting that it was possible that the police department would use facial recognition technology, he said in November.
Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of a recent book about mass surveillance, worries about facial recognition as a system of social control, calling the potential for abuse “astronomical.”
Portland councilors will tackle several policy and budget issues related to policing in coming weeks. On Thursday, the council’s finance committee will meet to begin a “several-months long process” to develop the budget for the 2021 fiscal year, Snyder said.
On June 22, the full council will get a full report from City Manager Jon Jennings about how the city’s police department conducted themselves during a protest for racial justice on June 1 following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer. The protest resulted in 23 arrests late in the night.
That meeting will also include a discussion about a June 9 incident in which two police officers, Detective Andrew Hagerty and Officer Matthew Rider, attempted to deliver a summons to Christian MilNeil for vandalizing a low-income housing development. MilNeil, a Portland journalist who sits on the Portland Housing Authority board, called the charges “absurd” and believes that he was instead targeted for tweets that were critical of police.