Voters in Portland, Maine, passed a referendum to ban Portland public officials and city agencies from using facial recognition technology on members of the public. In August, the city council voted to put a preliminary ban as an ordinance. This recently passed initiative will replace the ordinance with a stronger measure, which will be in place for at least five years. The initiative was placed on the ballot by Democratic Socialists of America’s Southern Maine chapter as part of their progressive efforts, which also include increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour and rent increase limits.
The referendum states: “An Act to Ban Facial Surveillance by Public Officials in Portland will ban the city of Portland and its departments and officials from using or authorizing the use of any facial surveillance software on any groups or member of the public, and provides a right to members of the public to sue if facial surveillance data is illegally gathered and/or used.”
The facial recognition ban adds penalties; private citizens are entitled to $100 per violation or a $1,000 fee for damages, whichever is greater, if they are surveilled in violation of the ban. Additionally, a city employee found violating the ordinance could be terminated or suspended and may be required to undergo retraining. The ordinance does not cover the use of facial recognition by the private sector.
Supporters used the initiative to bypass a local government that they felt has not done enough. In October, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and other city officials opposed the referendums, noting that while officials were “not necessarily opposed to the policy goals of the ballot questions, but rather the process and context in which they were developed.” Specifically, the Mayor and officials opposed it because “these ballot questions were developed in isolation by one organization” in a purported disregard to recent work by city staff and officials. Mayor Snyder also expressed concern that this initiative and the other referendums that passed could not be altered for five years.
“The five ordinances proposed by the Democratic Socialists subvert the open public process that we follow in considering major policies in our City. This is an abuse of our citizen initiative process to pass the Democratic Socialists’ agenda without consideration by local elected officials or members of the general public,” said Councilor Kim Cook. Additionally, Councilor Justin Costa added, “These referendums, developed with no public process or input, threaten many unintended consequences that cannot be undone for 5 years.”
The referendum will go into effect 30 days after the official canvases are returned. Other cities across the country have banned this technology, such as Boston, numerous cities in California, and Portland, Oregon.