The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday approved a measure placing strict limits on the municipality’s ability to use facial recognition technology for surveillance.
The measure bans the municipality and any city staff from using facial recognition technology “in conjunction with, or as a component of any real-time surveillance or surveillance technology.”
The legislation is meant to protect privacy rights and guard against misuse of the rapidly evolving technology, according to Assembly member Joey Sweet, who proposed the restrictions.
Facial recognition uses biometrics to map a person’s facial features and compare it to database images of known faces, like mugshots and driver’s license photos, to find a match. Facial recognition has been increasingly used by law enforcement and many federal agencies.
Currently, Anchorage police do not use the technology, police officials have said.
“I believe in privacy. I don’t believe this is necessary. I don’t believe this is effective,” Sweet said.
Sweet, an interim member appointed by the Assembly to fill a four-month vacancy in an East Anchorage seat, sponsored the measure along with members Daniel Volland and Felix Rivera.
The members raised several concerns with the technology, including that several studies found that facial recognition disproportionately misidentifies people of color. Users can also lower the confidence threshold of facial recognition systems, increasing the likelihood of misidentification — and leading to further potential for misuse, the ordinance states.
But the new city law comes with several exceptions. Anchorage police can still work with third-party agencies using the technology, such as the FBI, to identify human remains or missing persons, suspected victims of sex trafficking and suspected victims of child abuse or exploitation.
The measure also doesn’t restrict city employees from using the technology on devices such as cellphones, which often come with facial recognition features used to unlock the phones.
The legislation lays out a process for Anchorage police or other city departments to seek additional exceptions, allowing for possible future use by the city as facial recognition technology evolves. For that, a public hearing and Assembly approval will be required, according to the measure.
“I know that some departments may think that this is an onerous process, but for me, I think this is what we should be doing to proactively protect our constituents from, frankly, an unreliable and possibly possibly harmful technology that could invade their constitutionally protected privacy rights,” Rivera said.
Members approved the legislation in a 10-1 vote, with member Randy Sulte voting against it. Sulte called the ordinance a “solution looking for a problem.”
Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle had raised concerns over banning the technology, Assembly members said. Several of the issues he raised were addressed among the exceptions they incorporated into the final ordinance, members said Tuesday.
“I’m happy to support those efforts in order to stop violent crime and sexual abuse and crimes against minors. All you have to do is tell us what you need it for and come before us, and I bet you we would approve it rapidly,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.
Mayor Dave Bronson proposed a different version of the ordinance, which the Assembly did not consider. Bronson’s version would have added broad exceptions for the Anchorage Police Department to use facial recognition for 14 “authorized uses,” including to identify people reasonably believed to be a danger to themselves or others; to identify people detained by police; and to help mitigate significant threats to public safety, life and national security.