Portland City Council members unanimously heeded requests from civil-rights marchers who wanted, among other things, for the city to ban the use of facial-recognition technology. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | The Bangor Daily News

Portland city workers and police will be banned from employing facial recognition technology after city leaders unanimously agreed to have Portland join the ranks of other cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

The Portland City Council voted 9-0 on Monday night to approve City Councilor Pious Ali’s amended proposal, which was first introduced in November 2019.

Meant to be a tool to aid police in identifying suspects, the technology has come under fire from civil-rights advocates, as studies have shown that facial recognition algorithms exhibit racial and gender bias. 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.

The ordinance goes into effect in 30 days. Portland residents will have a chance to overturn the council vote when the city holds a referendum on a face surveillance ballot initiative in November. Ali called the vote “a big step forward in defending all of our civil liberties.”

“We are maintaining democratic control over a technology that is unreliable, racially-biased and a threat to democracy itself,” he said in a statement released by the city on Tuesday.

City councilors deferred action on Ali’s proposal around the election last November, pledging to take it up 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.

According to the city’s statement, the technology is especially harmful for communities of color, which are already subject to over-policing and hyper-surveillance. A number of research studies have found that face surveillance technology is especially faulty at identifying Black people, transgender people, young people and the elderly, according to the statement.

The council amended Ali’s proposal by removing provisions that would have allowed individuals to sue the city and its employees if they violated the law. They also cut parts of the plan that would have made certain evidence inadmissible in court, and set penalties for city employees who violate the law.

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.

Police have said they have no intention of using facial recognition technology, but staff overseeing the Portland Jetport and the ocean port have said such technology could be useful – if not required by federal authorities – for international travel, the Portland Press Herald reported.