In a groundbreaking move, Portland’s City Council has banned the use of facial recognition technology by both government and private entities, making it presumably the toughest ban on the technology anywhere in the world. Other cities in the US such as Boston, San FranciscoOaklandCambridgeBerkley, and Somerville, have also banned the use of technology, but only by the public authorities.

The ban has been issued by means of two separate ordinances — one prohibiting the use of the tech by the city’s government, and the other barring private entities such as restaurants, and supermarkets, from using the technology. The former ban is now in effect, while the latter will come into force on January 1, 2021. Amazon had lobbied against banning private entities using facial recognition in Portland and had spent a total of $24,000 towards this effort, as per OneZero.

“Face Recognition Technologies have been shown to falsely identify women and People of Color on a routine basis. While progress continues to be made in improving Face Recognition Technologies, wide ranges in accuracy and error rates that differ by race and gender have been found in vendor testing (sic),” the ordinance banning the private use of the technology said.

Evan Greer, deputy director of rights group Fight for the Future tweeted that corporate use of facial recognition can be “just as dangerous and discriminatory as government and law enforcement use. This technology, like nuclear or biological weapons, poses such a profound threat to humanity that it can’t be regulated. It must be abolished”. Rights group American Civil Liberties Union also welcomed the ban.

Action against facial recognition in the US

Ever since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US, the debate around racial discrimination has yet again come to the fore in the country, and facial recognition has had a demonstrated history of being discriminatory towards marginalised communities. Since then, there have been a number of legislative action in the US to ban the use of the tech:

  1. A bill in the US, backed by Bernie Sanders also proposes to prohibit private companies from collecting people’s biometrics, including facial data, eye scans, voiceprints, and fingerprints, without their consent. It also bars private entities from selling and leasing biometric data of people.
  2. In July, the New York State legislature passed a bill that places a moratorium on the use of biometric identification technologies, including facial recognition, in schools until July 2022, becoming the first state in the US to halt the use of facial recognition tech in schools.
  3. Members of the United States Congress have also introduced a bill that proposes to prohibit federal agencies and officials from acquiring, possessing, accessing, and even using “any biometric surveillance system”, such as facial recognition technology. The bill even stops federal agencies from using information derived by such systems operated by other entities.

The mounting pressure from the protests against racial discrimination in the US has also forced companies to take a stand against facial recognition, especially because the technology is known to be biased, particularly against people of colour and other underrepresented communities. Microsoft has said that it will not sell the tech to police in the US until a federal law, while Amazon has committed to doing the same, albeit just for a year. IBM has said that it will altogether stop offering “general-purpose facial recognition and analysis software”. Amazon’s facial recognition tool Rekognition, for instance, misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals.

Indian authorities use facial recognition technology unabated, sans policy

In India meanwhile, law enforcement agencies continue to use facial recognition technology indiscriminately at rallies, polling booths and protests without any law or policy governing its use.

  • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is in the midst of inviting applicants for the implementation of a centralised Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) that will be a platform of facial images accessible to all police stations of the country.
  • In February 2020, we reported that the Vadodara City Policy is planning to use Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition software in public places to track “property offenders”. This software could also be used in CCTVs installed at “specific locations” in the city.
  • In January 2020, the Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC) piloted a facial recognition app would be used on a pilot basis at 10 polling stations in the Kompally Municipality in the state’s civic elections.
  • In January 2020, The Indian Railways said that it was in the process of installing Video Surveillance Systems (VSS), equipped with a facial recognition system, in 983 railway stations across the country.
  • In December 2018, Delhi Police used facial recognition technology at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally to screen crowds, News18 had reported.
  • In November 2019, the Hyderabad Police randomly collected people’s fingerprints and facial data to identify “potential” criminals using the TSCOP app which was launched in January 2018. Syed Rafeeq, Additional DCP, South Zone, Hyderabad, had told MediaNama that the police was approaching people to verify if they were “suspects” mostly based on intuition.