Amazon Is Quietly Fighting Against a Sweeping Facial Recognition Ban in Portland
Late last year, Amazon spent $12,000 lobbying against a new facial recognition law in Portland, Oregon. The proposed legislation would outright ban the use of the technology by government and private entities, and threaten a range of businesses that sell and use the technology in the city. (Public records show since this story was originally reported, Amazon spent an additional $12,000 on lobbying fees to contact and meet with Portland city council staff regarding its facial recognition ban, bringing its lobbying total as of September 2020 to $24,000.)
“[Amazon is] hoping that they can stop it, and they can’t,” Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a champion of the proposal, told OneZero.
City public records archives indicate that this is the first time Amazon has lobbied in the city. The company is hoping to at least water down the legislation, which is poised to introduce some of the most aggressive controls on the technology in the United States.
Not only would the new legislation prevent the use of facial recognition by government agencies and law enforcement, it would stop private entities such as businesses from using the technology, too. And it would even outlaw city agencies from evaluating facial recognition tech, including systems made available for free.
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“If they can’t stop it, they’re hoping to soften the language so that they can have more wiggle room,” Hardesty said. “And they also won’t be able to do that.”
A draft of the ordinance already makes certain exceptions for government use. For example, it would allow facial recognition to be used to unlock a phone, tag someone in social media, or to obscure faces in images and video. It remains unclear exactly how the ordinance would fully apply to private entities.
The city originally planned for a vote on the ordinance by April, but because of the Covid-19 lockdown, a vote isn’t expected until at least June. Currently, according to city staff, no Portland agencies, including the Portland Police Bureau, use facial recognition or biometric technologies. If the ordinance is approved, each city bureau would be required to provide a tech assessment to ensure that is the case.
In September, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said its public policy team was developing its own federal facial recognition legislation proposal.
Amazon has a big stake in facial recognition legislation. The company’s facial recognition system, Rekognition, employs deep learning technology to perform facial analysis and identify objects and people in images and video. Amazon’s website indicates that Rekognition’s client roster includes the NFL and CBS; clients use it for a range of purposes, including identity verification and to detect faces in videos for content tagging.
Rekognition is currently used by the sheriff’s office in Washington County, located just west of Portland’s Multnomah County.
The company aims to influence facial recognition at a local and federal level. In September, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said its public policy team was developing its own federal facial recognition legislation proposal.
“To be very blunt, they’re concerned about their bottom line,” City Council Commissioner Hardesty recently told OneZero. She confirmed her office has met with Amazon. “They’re going to lose sales if they are not able to sell equipment that allows them to collect data.”
Portland City Auditor records show Amazon lobbyists contacted staffers from offices of four city council commissioners and the mayor’s office in November and met with three of them in December, all in regards to the facial recognition proposal. City staffers say Amazon wanted to influence language in the draft, including how the term “facial recognition” is defined. Neither the company nor its lobbyists from Oxley & Associates responded to requests for more information.
Citing concerns about invasive surveillance and technical inaccuracies, a growing number of U.S. cities have prohibited government and police forces from using facial recognition technology, or are considering limits. Along with San Francisco and Oakland, Massachusetts municipalities of Brookline, Cambridge, Northampton, Somerville, and Springfield have banned local government use of facial recognition tech. Similar bills are under consideration in Boston and New York.
A majority of Amazon shareholders want the company to continue selling the technology. Last year, shareholders voted down proposals to limit sales of its facial recognition tech to governments and evaluate its impact on civil rights and privacy.
Civil liberties advocates worry that the widespread use of facial recognition tech could lead to invasive surveillance at a community level. The ACLU named Amazon in a lawsuit filed last October that sought public documents related to the use of facial recognition and other biometric technology by federal law enforcement agencies, all of which could be used to track, identify, and monitor people.
Some facial recognition systems have exhibited technical flaws that could have serious ramifications, including a tendency to misidentify dark-skinned faces. Research from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in December showed that many facial recognition algorithms were 10 to 100 times more likely to inaccurately identify black or East Asian faces, compared with white faces.
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In a 2018 study, the ACLU found that Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with faces of people who had been arrested for crimes. Amazon stated that the researchers failed to calibrate its system properly.
In Portland, a city still struggling with a history of institutionalized racism and redlining, a ban on a technology shown to have negative impacts on people of color could send a significant message.
The legislation would be in line with the city’s stated commitment to implement equitable tech and data use policies. In 2018, Portland established a framework prioritizing the consideration of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in its use of technology. Last year, Smart City PDX, the city’s advisory body overseeing those efforts, helped establish a data privacy resolution that incorporated themes of equity and non-discrimination. The same group has overseen drafting of the facial recognition ban.
Three of four city council commissioners have expressed support for a ban. (There are five city council seats, but one is empty following the death of a commissioner). During a facial recognition workgroup session in January which included civil rights groups, law enforcement, and business associations, Portland mayor Ted Wheeler said that the city should only use technologies “with frontline communities being considered first as part of the conversation.”
Hardesty, the first African-American woman on Portland’s city council, was more blunt in her comments to OneZero. “Right now, you can have no confidence in [facial recognition] technology unless you are a white person,” she said.
The ACLU found in a study that Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with faces of people who had been arrested for crimes.
Portland’s proposed facial recognition ban, potentially the first to include private entities, has stirred opposition from lobbyists who work for some of tech’s most high-profile companies. In a January 2020 opinion piece in The Oregonian, the state’s biggest newspaper, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) — a Washington, D.C. think tank whose board members lobby for Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft — argued that, “Rather than take a ‘ban first, ask questions later’ approach, Portland should undertake a series of small-scale pilots of the technology to evaluate its effectiveness and impact on privacy in various settings.”
Amazon’s VP of Public Policy Shannon Kellogg sits on the ITIF’s board.
Few details have emerged regarding the expected ban on private facial recognition use, and a draft ordinance for that has yet to be released to the public. Monitoring for compliance is a sticking point. Hardesty has suggested the city could fine non-compliant entities.
Facial recognition technology is already used in Portland. For instance, customers attempting to enter three Jacksons Food Stores locations in the city after hours must pass through a facial recognition system first.
Before the system unlocks doors to the stores, it tells would-be patrons, “Please look in camera for entry.” If someone’s face is matched to the store’s database of unwelcome people, the doors remain locked.
Neither Jacksons nor Blue Line Software, the firm that makes the facial recognition system, has lobbied on Portland’s legislation. But local business groups have indicated opposition to a ban on private use. Some suggest businesses want to use facial recognition for security purposes or to recognize loyal customers in their stores.
At the January council session, a Portand Business Alliance representative suggested that a strict ban on facial recognition could send a signal that Portland is not hospitable to the tech industry.
Mayor Wheeler replied that Portland was not anti-tech. Rather, he said, the city was taking proactive measures to safeguard marginalized citizens from potential harms in part as a reaction to “big tech” firms that have “bulldozed local communities in the absence of federal standards.”
Hardesty said it’s time for the city “to act decisively as we get to the other side of this pandemic and start rebuilding the process.” She added, “One worry we can take off people’s minds is, when they go about their day-to-day activities, whether people are collecting data on them and then selling it for purposes that they have no control over.”
Update: This story has been updated to account for additional lobbying done since this article was first published.