(TNS) — It took a few moments before Eduardo Carrillo could step into a Jacksons Food Store in Northeast Portland, Oregon, on a recent weeknight.

He stood in front of the locked gas station convenience store door, placed his feet on designated spots on a doormat and looked up into a camera. The door then unlocked.

Other customers’ experience wasn’t as smooth. One man yanked on the door repeatedly while looking at the handle in apparent confusion -- until an automated woman’s voice rang out from an overhead speaker.

“Please look at camera for entry.”

Jacksons’ use of facial recognition technology could soon be outlawed in Portland. City officials are considering the strictest ban of the technology in the country, prohibiting its use not only by government agencies but also private businesses.

Facial recognition technology typically uses a camera and software to analyze human faces to identify or verify a person’s identity. The technology can compare a scan with an already existing database of images, such as jail booking photos or government identification records.

There are no federal rules regulating facial recognition technology or what’s done with data obtained through its use, which city officials say is forcing them to follow the lead of other cities and institute their own rules.

The state of Oregon already bans police from using body cameras with facial recognition technology.

San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are among those that have banned use of facial recognition by police departments and other local government agencies. Portland officials have proposed similar prohibitions for public agencies. The proposed ban on private businesses’ use of such technology is expected to prevent businesses from collecting, using or storing people’s facial or biometric information gathered in spaces open to the public, such as parks or grocery stores.

Portland officials point to concerns over residents’ civil rights and privacy as reasons for the bans. They also cite studies that show the technology shows racial and gender bias.

“We felt a moral obligation to develop a broader approach, recognizing that any use of a surveillance technology that is biased against people of color, lacks consent, lacks due process and can be used on minors is unacceptable,” said Hector Dominguez, an open data coordinator in the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The ban wouldn’t apply to private use, such as the Face ID feature on iPhones.

Some business advocates say city officials should consider a temporary ban on specific uses of facial recognition software, rather than a blanket ban on the technology itself. The technology does have positive uses and evolves so fast that negative impacts may quickly be reduced, said Technology Association of Oregon President Skip Newberry.

“Talking to some businesses that we work with as well as the broader business community, there are definitely some who would be opposed to the city restricting their ability to use that technology,” he said. “It can range from security of sites or critical infrastructure to people coming into a store and it being used to provide an experience tailored to that individual.”

Jacksons officials, for example, say they use the technology at three stores in Portland to help protect employees and customers from people who’ve threatened clerks or shoplifted.

Carrillo said he frequents the Jacksons at Northeast Sixth Avenue and Broadway Street a few times a week on his way home from work, so the recently installed facial recognition camera is no longer a surprise to him. The Vancouver resident said the technology fascinates him because it reminds him of gadgets he has seen in movies.

He wonders, though, what happens after he walks into the store.

“I don’t know where the pictures of my face go,” Carrillo said.

Facial Recognition As A Deterrent

Portland officials said they don’t know of any businesses in the city beside Jacksons that use facial recognition technology.

Jacksons has more than 250 stores in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Oregon is home to 56 locations and 16 of them in Portland. But the company only uses facial recognition at three Portland locations: 621 S.E. Grand Ave., 15 N.E. Broadway and 519 N.E. Broadway, said spokesman Russ Stoddard. The Grand Avenue location went first, in November 2018 and the other two in October.

At each location, a camera and speaker are perched above the doors. A sign tells people to look at the camera to get inside and that facial recognition is in use. The camera captures their image and unlocks the door.

Each photo is matched against images of past customers, Stoddard said, and if one matches a picture of someone Jacksons has flagged at that location, the door stays locked.

“We’ve found that it precludes certain types of behavior, because they see the camera and sign on the front door and know this is not a place to cause a ruckus,” Stoddard said.

Two other stores in Tacoma also have the technology. The stores are all open 24 hours. The facial recognition cameras operate from around 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The company chose the five stores based on repeated reports from employees about threats, theft or drug use, Stoddard said. He estimated that each location gets 100 to 200 customers a night.

The images are sent to a private server at the company’s headquarters in Meridian, Idaho, he said. They are stored for 48 hours and automatically deleted unless flagged by an employee, Stoddard said. Company officials review security footage from the store to confirm a flagged image should be kept.

Flagged images are kept in the company’s system forever, Stoddard said.

In the 15 months that the device has been used, just two images have been stored, one from Portland and another from Tacoma, Stoddard said. He declined to say what led to the images being held or to disclose any other details about the people involved.

Stoddard said he didn’t know of any cases in which the technology misidentified anyone.

“We understand this is a very complicated and controversial societal issue, but our focus has always been to increase the safety of employees and customers in locations where there has been misbehavior in the past,” Stoddard said. “We’re aware the City Council is looking at this issue and ultimately, we would comply with whatever the city chooses to do.”

Jacksons doesn’t sell the images or give them to third parties, according to Stoddard. However, he said the company would consider providing images to police in connection with serious crime investigations, if they were to ask.

Jacksons’ facial recognition product, called First Line, comes from Missouri-based software company Blue Line Technology. The company touts the product as developed by law enforcement veterans and markets it for places including schools, banks, high-end condos, government buildings and hospitals.

Blue Line Technology did not respond to requests for comment.

The camera captures 30 digital frames per second and images can be added to the database in less than 30 seconds, according to the company’s website. People who are scanned are classified as “known,” “unknown” and “alert” via the camera’s real-time video feed.

“You can add custom notes such as ‘known shoplifter’ and instructions for responders such as ‘call police,’ or ‘greet, so he knows you’re watching,’” the website says

Delta Airlines uses facial recognition technology at Portland International Airport to screen passengers boarding non-stop international flights, a spokesperson told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The company scans faces to match them with pictures from photo IDs and passports. Customers can opt out and have their boarding documents checked by a gate agent instead, the spokesperson said.

Reducing Harm

Portland’s proposed ban on facial recognition technology is part of a bigger effort to shape technology policy in a way that reduces harm to marginalized communities, Dominguez said.

The city council has held two work sessions since September about facial recognition technology. Officials will hold two community meetings later in February and in March to generate feedback. Dominguez said the goal is for his bureau and the Office of Equity and Human Rights to propose drafts of both the public and private bans for the public to see in March, then final versions for the council to vote on around April.

“We are using the word ban, but we consider it more as us putting the brakes on this technology in the city for now so we can create a space for developing a capacity for better understanding all this emerging technology.” he said. “We see this as a process and as the technology evolves, we need to evolve as well.”

During a January city council discussion, Portland Police Assistant Chief Ryan Lee said the bureau doesn’t use facial recognition now but may want to in the future.

Lee said potential uses of facial recognition include reducing the risk of misidentifying people accused of crimes and decreasing the time it takes to comb through suspect photos in databases. The technology could be a public safety asset if properly managed, he said.

“The technology is advancing in this field, and an outright ban could be detrimental to a point when the technology evolves that we should be looking to adopt,” Lee said.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office since 2017 has used a facial recognition tool from Amazon that allows deputies to check photos of unidentified people against a database of county jail booking photos taken as far back as 2001. Images taken from a security surveillance camera, social media account or a deputy’s cellphone are among ones that can be run through the Rekognition software to identify people.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has led Portland’s effort to ban the technology, said the issue comes down to racial justice and the community’s right to privacy. Several studies have shown facial recognition technology has various degrees of accuracy and can have higher rates of error when analyzing women or people of color.

Hardesty said she began seriously considering including private businesses in the ban after learning last fall that police agencies in Washington County were encouraging residents who own Ring doorbell cameras to share video footage to help solve crimes by using an app that allows law enforcement access to the clips.

She said she was concerned that the data was controlled by a third-party company, in that case Amazon, and the public had no way of knowing who had access to their data, if it was being sold or if the devices were capturing people who didn’t consent, including children.

“My problem is that you should not have your image stored if you are not involved in criminal behavior,” Hardesty said. “If you’re just gathering images up because people are walking by a door, to me, that is just not acceptable.”

Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Chloe Eudaly also said they support the bans. Eudaly said she would not back its use by any city bureau, including Portland police.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, is also in favor of the ban. He said he doesn’t think facial recognition technology should be used on a wide scale and that it hasn’t developed enough to “serve the public’s best interests.”

He said the council might consider having a community group vet organizations that want to use the technology. Businesses would have to prove that the technology’s current equity, privacy and data management issues are satisfactorily addressed.

Wheeler said the use by Jacksons could possibly lead to discriminatory practices and is an example of what the city is trying to prevent. He sees a silver lining in the business claiming their employees feel safer and that thefts have decreased, but he believes it needs to be better perfected.

“We’re not there yet,” Wheeler said. “None of this is possible with the technology we currently have and so we have to look to protecting the rights of our citizens above all else, especially those who’ve been historically underserved.”

Regulate Or Ban?

Newberry, the Technology Association of Oregon president, and Jon Isaacs, vice president of government affairs for the Portland Business Alliance, said many of the companies they represent agree that the community has legitimate concerns about facial recognition that need to be addressed. But they said banning all private sector use may not be the most effective answer. They both said the city should focus more on regulating how the data that is collected is used.

“Facial recognition technology is only one technology among many that can be used to collect personally identifiable information,” Newberry said. “You’re not going to solve the bigger issue of bias and people essentially putting together a profile of someone based on data that’s being collected about them just by banning facial recognition technology.”

Isaacs said Portland has a growing tech industry. “If you want to be seen as a pro-technology city, banning technology is not an action you want to take,” he said.

Darren Harold-Golden, policy specialist with the Urban League of Portland, said a public and private ban on the technology would allow the community to learn more about how facial recognition is used without the threat of being inadvertently harmed by it in the interim.

“A ban doesn’t mean forever, you can always revisit it,” Harold-Golden said. “But there are still significant concerns over how explicit consent is obtained and what do you do to appeal or get off a private database if you’re mistakenly blacklisted.”

Jonathan Fink, a Portland State University geology professor and head of the school’s Digital City Testbed Center, said facial recognition technology forces people to weigh trading privacy for convenience and public safety.

“The big question is always going to be, ‘Do I want to give up my rights to my personal information and trust other parties who I’ll never actually meet to have it?’” Fink said. “Once you put a big system in place, it’s hard to take it down.”

Fink said he believes the city should institute a temporary ban this year and be open to reconsidering the technology and its innovations in 2021. He said Portland over the years has been both a policy leader and a stubborn holdout, and he hopes the city finds a middle ground in this case.

“If we stake out a position as Portland is going to be very restrictive so it can examine the questions and ethical issues around this for the benefit of the rest of the country, I think that’s a real service,” Fink said. “But on the other hand, the city could be anti-scientific and anti-objective, like still being the only major city that doesn’t fluoridate its water, and I think that’s really bad.”

Some employees at Jacksons stores in Northeast Portland said they have seen improvements since the facial recognition technology was installed. The camera and sign appear to act as a deterrent at times.

But, they say, the technology isn’t foolproof. Some customers may not have their faces captured on camera when multiple people enter the store at the same time. Also, if a person steals and doesn’t come back, keeping their picture on file doesn’t do anything.

“We deal with people from all walks of life here, but no camera is going to address homelessness, mental health or drug use,” said one employee who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized by the company to discuss the technology.

Ervin Hester, a Portland resident who said he worked at one of the Jacksons stores until October, said he was concerned by the company’s lack of transparency. He noted there isn’t a process for customers to know how long their photos are held or determine if they’ve been wrongly identified.

It’s on the employees to explain what the technology is and that could put them at risk, he said.

“I think these stores need it, but tell the public about why it’s here, where it is and be transparent about the whole process,” Hester said. “You don’t know how some people are going to react when they find out after the fact that the camera they thought was only recording video is actually out here scanning and downloading their face.”

©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.