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. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 1:14pm

    If you won't do it the public will

    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.”

    Here's a thought: If you don't like the idea that the public might learn who it is they're paying with their taxes don't work for the public.

    Additionally, maybe, just maybe, the reason members of the public are interested in finding out exactly who was cracking skulls during a protest is they know that if they don't do it you sure as hell won't, and the only chance they have to even maybe see a punishment handed out for abuse of power is if they force your hand by making officer names and actions public so you can't just brush it under the rug and claim that you'll 'look into it'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Kitsune106, 10 Nov 2020 @ 1:37pm

    The real cop answer is

    What have they got to hide? I mean, facial Id is used to get worst of the worst and what's worse then a corrupt cop? He's just taking their word to heart.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2020 @ 2:00pm

    Ah, so for any given "it",

    • It is OK for us to do it, because they do it. Or,
    • It is OK for us to do it, but it is wrong for them to do it because (reason).

    Think there might be a problem with this logic?

    ... once the war is over, who will ensure the victors lay down their arms?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 2:12pm

    The cops worry so much about some rando identifying cops who break laws that they never stop to realize how they wouldn’t need to worry if they’d stop breaking laws.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Madd the Sane (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 2:26pm

    Re:

    It's a power thing. Police have a lot of power over citizens. Currently, citizens have little power over police. People in power tend to abuse that power. Citizens have little power to abuse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Bobvious, 10 Nov 2020 @ 2:36pm

    Re: Good advice

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Upstream (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 2:43pm

    Re:

    But where's the fun in that?

    Cops don't do much that isn't fun or profitable. Obeying laws, serving the public, and protecting the public don't fit into either category.

    Also, Christopher Howell is my new hero!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Pixelation, 10 Nov 2020 @ 7:21pm

    Are off duty cops private citizens and will they be allowed to use facial recognition software? Will they be allowed to give that information to fellow officers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. 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

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 9:57pm

    The murder of government employees will not solve, and hasn’t ever solved, anyone’s problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Madd the Sane (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 10:16pm

    Re:

    But it made some people feel like retribution was done.

    Just a reminder to everyone: Vengeance isn't justice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Madd the Sane (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 10:20pm

    Powerless? No. Less powerful? Yes.

    And how quickly would one person who went around killing police officers last? I guarantee that, unless the police are that hated by the public, the public would assist the police in tracking down any mass murderer, even if that murderer was a cop killer.

    What about a group of people? Or even a city? I think the answer is that if it went that far, the military would end up getting involved to quell the uprising.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Nov 2020 @ 11:30pm

    Oh look, you just gave the cops even MORE justification...

    If 'murder people' comes from your 'conscious' you have a, quite possibly literally, deranged mind and should go see a psychiatrist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 Nov 2020 @ 1:33am

    Re: Powerless Public?!?

    "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. "

    I find it surprising you should even bring that up given the evidence of how that worked during these last years. A white supremacist can walk down in open carry after murdering people and the cops will wave him through. To anyone not in good standing with the police that lethal weapon isn't protection - it's an invitation to have you shot like a dog by snipers and your face paraded in the latest political power-grab as a "homegrown terrorist".

    At least half of the reason republicans support 2A is because in the unlikely case that a bunch of gun owners were to use their arms against the government they would finally have the excuse they always wanted - because if you can't take the guns away from potential terrorists everywhere the only solution to keep people's white-picket-fence homes safe is to authorize police and military to do whatever it takes to pacify the heartland. Welcome to that future depicted as a boot forever stomping on a human face.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2020 @ 2:22am

    Re:

    Citizens have to co-operate to make face recognition work well, and a very good reason to do that cooperation. Unlike the police, we can does not mean we will.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2020 @ 4:55am

    Re:

    First off, the killing of gov't employees need not be murder, which is illegal homicide, e.g. "cops" with name plates and badge numbers concealed assaulting peaceful, private citizens. Second, killing, whether applied to gov't types or others, has solved permanently more problems than virtually any other tactic and retains the potential to solve more; if you doubt that, look around for some Carthaginians.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 11 Nov 2020 @ 8:21am

    Violence always causes more problems than it solves in the long run. Smacking a loudmouth racist asshole in the mouth might shut them up out of embarassment, but if you hit them hard enough to knock them down and they hit their head on something as they fall down…well, their problems may have ended, but your problems have only begun.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2020 @ 8:32am

    Re: Re:

    if you doubt that, look around for some Carthaginians.

    You consider genocide to be a solution to a problem?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 Nov 2020 @ 8:46am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "You consider genocide to be a solution to a problem?"

    The unfortunate truth is that if you can swing it, it often is.
    If China manages to eradicate Uyghur culture, for instance, China's only problem left will be....well, given that no one can afford moving their manufacturing back out of China I guess China will have no problems.

    The catholic church resorted to multiple counts of genocide and 500 years down the road, lo and behold, catholic christianity reigns in all those places.

    Kindly point, on a map of the USA, which territories used to be populated by native americans of given tribal ethnicities?

    The lesson is pretty damning; genocide achieves its purpose.

    Hence why humanity has tried to move into paradigms which do not allow that solution to be effectively applied. And we still aren't there yet, because ethnic cleansing and genocide is still used with frightening regularity.

    The real issue with the OP's contention of "...Second, killing, whether applied to gov't types or others, has solved permanently more problems than virtually any other tactic and retains the potential to solve more..." isn't that it's wrong, because it's not.

    It's that it's a stone-age solution we have no excuse not to have abandoned when we started claiming we were civilized.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2020 @ 7:48pm

    Re:

    "Violence always causes more problems than it solves in the long run."

    Guess the whole Rome/Carthage argument went of your head without mussing you hair.

    "Smacking a loudmouth racist asshole in the mouth..."

    Not talking about "smacking a loudmouth...talking about killing people. Pay attention.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2020 @ 7:54pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    "You consider genocide to be a solution to a problem?"

    Can be. Hitler tried it with fair success. But Rome vs. Carthage had nothing to do with genocide - that was merely inter-city trade competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Nov 2020 @ 4:11pm

    Re:

    It is OK for us to do it, but it is wrong for them to do it because (accountability on both sides is important)

    It is unnecessary for cops to use facial recognition, because they have a wide array of means by which they can hold people accountable. They can compel a person to identify themselves under the appropriate circumstances, they can arrest a person, they have a wide array of tools with which to establish a wrongdoers identity. If you're not a cop, you don't have access to those tools and when cops start concealing their identity, it is an overt attempt to evade responsibility for their own wrongdoing. Facial recognition is very nearly the only way to identify a police officer guilty of misconduct, criminal or otherwise.

    It's a question of limiting the very broad powers of police in a very minimal way and increasing the very nearly non existent power of the public in an equally minimal way

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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