Portland’s Face-Recognition Ban Is a New Twist on ‘Smart Cities’

Portland's 2016 entry for a $50 million federal contest called the Smart City Challenge described a Pacific Northwest tech-topia. It promised autonomous shuttles, trucks, and cars on city streets, through partnerships with Daimler and Lyft. Sensors from Alphabet ’s Sidewalk Labs would monitor people walking and biking around the city to analyze traffic patterns.The Rose City didn’t win, and four years later there are no self-driving Lyfts on its streets. One thing that has changed: Portland’s conception of what makes a city smart.This month, Portland adopted the nation’s most restrictive laws on face recognition , banning private as well as government use of the technology. The new rules originated in part from a small city office called Smart City PDX that has sought to redefine the buzzword it is named for. Instead of hunting for “smart” new tech, it aims to mediate tech’s impact on citizens. “The focus became the work we need to do before we deploy new technology, especially in BIPOC communities who don’t trust the city to necessarily represent their interests,” says Kevin Martin, who leads Smart City PDX.
That group drafted the ordinances that made Portland the first major US city to restrict private as well as public use of face recognition. The new rules are part of a broader movement by officials around the US to scrutinize tech companies, and of cities deciding that being smart means restricting some technologies.At least 10 US cities have banned government use of face recognition since San Francisco became the first city to do so in May 2019 . This year has seen smart city retrenchments. In May, Sidewalk Labs abandoned a project to techify Toronto’s waterside after tangling with local activists and lawmakers. This month, San Diego’s mayor switched off the cameras on thousands of “smart streetlights” after it emerged that police frequently accessed the footage, contrary to the $30 million project’s original goals.
The power of civic technology was known to the Romans, but the term “smart city” took off in the 2010s, as the tech industry accelerated out of the Great Recession hungry for new places to apply computing. Companies as diverse as IBM, Cisco, and Megvii, a top vendor of face recognition to the Chinese government , use the term in marketing.The US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge reflected the concept's usual form. The project aimed to create “a fully integrated, first-of-its-kind city that uses data, technology and creativity to shape how people and goods move in the future.” Tap the right tech and you can sculpt how your city and citizens function.article image

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Columbus, Ohio, won the $50 million in June 2016, but being a finalist put Portland on the map with technology providers. Product pitches flooded in; the city worked with AT&T and GE to add traffic sensors to some streetlights and tested traffic-tracking software from Sidewalk Labs. But Martin, who worked on the 2016 contest entry and then led a small team inside the city’s bureau of planning and sustainability, worried about letting industry take the lead. “‘Smart cities’ was a marketing term created to sell cities technology, and when the concept first started getting traction, a lot of those technologies were oversold,” he says.

The team’s self-image permanently shifted in 2017, as it worked to implement a new ordinance committing Portland to sharing data collected by the city or its contractors. Immigrant and minority communities worried that data could inadvertently expose people reliant on city services to discrimination or even deportation. The team began to reframe its mission around improving equity by being responsible with technology, not sourcing cool new gear.