CBP Pushes for Surveillance Loopholes in Portland Facial Recognition Ban Legislation

Posted July 22, 2020, 9:55 PM

Customs and Border Protection are on the streets in Portland and making international headlines for abducting peaceful protesters in unmarked vehicles at the behest of President Trump. They are also aiming to weaken what would otherwise be the gold standard of citywide public and private facial recognition bans.

Graffiti on the Justice Center in downtown Portland, visible during a vigil to protest federal law enforcement’s presence in the city.

After extensive research and review, Portland, OR is poised to consider the most aggressive facial recognition ban in the nation — on both public and private use of the racially biased surveillance technology that police in other cities have used to punish Black Lives Matter protesters.

But, in a letter shared with Fight for the Future and embedded below, Emerald Bogue, the director of Regional Government and Community Affairs for the Port of Portland, is requesting an exemption for "air carrier passenger processing" on behalf of airlines, specifically Delta. This exemption would be made to allow airlines to run both domestic and international passengers through a facial recognition system connected to Customs and Border Protection’s database.

Residents of the region are invited to sign a petition in support of a ban with no exemptions for CBP here: http://banfacialrecognition.com/pdx

In her letter, Bogue focuses exclusively on the limited "authentication" use of facial recognition by the airlines themselves, while not addressing what uses Customs and Border Protection may have for the data that is fed into their system. The letter also does not address previous reports of Delta employees not offering passengers the option to opt-out of facial recognition verification, or the vulnerability of passengers in marginalized groups to airport harassment and invasive searches and questioning should they opt-out of a search.

Bogue’s letter names COVID-19 as a factor in the decision to implement facial recognition at airports, ignoring the likely need to remove masks in order to be processed through a facial recognition database.

"We recognize the need from Airlines to offer touchless services now, in order to protect not only passengers, but their own staff as well; however, we also see the more urgent need for more transparency on how biometric data is collected, used and retained in the first place," said Hector Dominguez (he/him), Open Data Coordinator at the City of Portland, who is working on the bill. "This decision to include this exemption is still under internal discussion in the City." Dominguez expects a new public draft of the bill to be made available the week of the 27th of July.

In regards to the requested exemption, Chris Bushick (pronouns: she/her), Founder of local advocacy organization PDXPrivacy, said: "I have concerns about "mission creep" and that an optional convenience may too-easily transition to a mandatory intrusion."

Major cities such as Boston and San Francisco have banned government use of this controversial technology, but Portland could be the first in the nation to also ban private use. Companies including Kohl’s, Walmart, and Portland Jackson’s gas stations have already used facial recognition on customers without their consent.

"With Customs and Border Protection here, right now, abducting peaceful protesters in a gross violation of our rights and disregard for our humanity, the fact that our City Commissioners and Mayor are considering making a special exception to let CBP surveil airport passengers is a betrayal, and that’s putting it mildly," said Lia Holland (pronouns: she/her), an Activist with Fight for the Future and a Portland resident. "Enabling CBP in Portland in any way is a despicable act of cowardice on the part of the city."

"Banning cops from using facial recognition is little use when they can just go ask Walmart for their data," Holland continued. "Without these two bills, one each to ban public and private use, Portland will turn into Orwell’s 1984. We will be tracked and identified wherever we go. I don’t want data on my appearance and my habits to be available to bad actors, hackers, and stalkers. We can’t change our faces or our children’s faces like we can change a credit card number."

Previously, ICE has come under fire for their use of Amazon’s Rekognition Facial Recognition System to deport undocumented immigrants. Experts have expressed concerns that facial recognition at airports may be used to target groups such as activists, immigrants, and journalists, vulnerable groups that are already being targeted by federal law enforcement in Portland.