Portland's Facial Recognition Ban Won't Stop Private Citizens From Rolling Their Own Tech To ID Cops

from the how-the-turntables dept

Portland, Oregon recently passed a ban on facial recognition tech. Unlike bans passed elsewhere in the country, this one wasn't fucking around. The ban covered private companies as well as local government agencies. We've yet to see whether or not the courts will allow Portland to tell local businesses how to run their business, but the new ban has posed a novel problem not seen elsewhere. Residents trying to flip the script on law enforcement have discovered the new ban might impede their efforts. Kashmir Hill has the details on the unlikeliest outcome of blanket facial recognition bans.

When the city debated the ban, it asked residents for input. One resident had a very unique problem with the proposal.

During the time for public comments, a local man, Christopher Howell, said he had concerns about a blanket ban. He gave a surprising reason.

“I am involved with developing facial recognition to in fact use on Portland police officers, since they are not identifying themselves to the public,” Mr. Howell said. Over the summer, with the city seized by demonstrations against police violence, leaders of the department had told uniformed officers that they could tape over their name. Mr. Howell wanted to know: Would his use of facial recognition technology become illegal?

When cops resfuse to ID themselves while assaulting journalists and legal observers, why shouldn't citizens be able to deploy this controversial tech to put a name to the faces wielding the pepper spray and rubber bullets? It's a good question. And it's one Portland mayor Ted Wheeler answered after throwing a bit of undeserved shade at Christopher Howell:

Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, told Mr. Howell that his project was “a little creepy,” but a lawyer for the city clarified that the bills would not apply to individuals.

Presumably, Wheeler's passage of the blanket ban means the mayor also thinks law enforcement's use of the tech is at least "a little creepy." But there's really nothing creepy about residents -- those on the lower end of the "inherent power" scale -- utilizing tech most often wielded by law enforcement against law enforcement. If officers think facial recognition use by civilians is a "little creepy," they're severely lacking in self-awareness. And if Portland cops don't want residents to turn their favorite tool against them, they could stop taping over their names when handling protests.

Howell's tech is self-developed. That puts him a bit behind the curve. But it also means it will work well within its limitations. Rather than search for faces in databases containing millions of photos, it only has to deal with photos of known local law enforcement officers. The possibility of false positives remains. But the worst case scenario is a misidentified officer, rather than the arrest of an innocent citizen. Howell has no power to take away the freedom of any police officer, even temporarily.

For all their touting of pervasive surveillance as "harmless" and "for the public good," governments sure get touchy when people start subjecting their employees to the same sort of eyeballing. Hill's report notes Hong Kong authorities arrested a protester for developing a tool to identify police officers using nothing more than other publicly-available photos. And in France, an artist who published 4,000 facial photos of police officers in his art exhibit removed them after being threatened with legal action by the Interior Minister.

Meanwhile, the Portland Police Department continues to defend its policy of hiding officers' names, under the theory that it's the powerless populace that presents the biggest threat to safety.

Derek Carmon, a public information officer at the Portland Police Bureau, said that “name tags were changed to personnel numbers during protests to help eliminate the doxxing of officers,” but that officers are required to wear name tags for “non-protest-related duties.”

Officers "dox" people all the time. Sometimes for "business" reasons. Other times for personal reasons. The government has a lot more personal information at its fingertips than the average citizen does, even four decades after the birth of the internet. There's an existential threat present here, but it wears badges and guns. For all the talk about the threat posed to cops, I'm unaware of any instance where a doxxed cop was awoken by citizens breaking in their door, loading the house up with flashbangs, holding them at gunpoint while the house is ransacked, and locking them up until a certain amount of money is paid to a third party. Spinning the tech to face the entities that deploy it most is just fair play.

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Filed Under: cops, facial recognition, portland, protestors


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2020 @ 9:18pm

    Powerless Public?!?

    Ok Cushing, for the sake of intellectual honesty here let's not go full hyperbole. Yes LEO and the Govt have power, much much power, and data, and cover, and authorization, and immunity, and checks notes I'm probably missing something. But to call the public powerless is disingenuous. The public has a great many powers and in America with our pretty liberal access to firearms and weaponry, a non-trivial amount of that is directly lethal.
    -Your conscience


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