Anchorage Assembly heavily limits city use of facial recognition technology

Anchorage Assembly member Joey Sweet during a special Assembly meeting on April 18, 2023. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday passed an ordinance limiting the city’s use of facial recognition technology. 

East Anchorage Assembly member Joey Sweet proposed the measure. He raised concerns about the use of facial recognition by cities across the country, particularly by law enforcement. He said it’s not reliable, and runs the risk of violating people’s privacy. 

“I believe in privacy,” he said. “I don’t believe this is necessary. I don’t believe this is effective.”

Facial recognition is used to map out someone’s face and compare it to database images, like mugshots and drivers license photos. Anchorage Police Department officials have said they don’t currently use the technology.

The ordinance doesn’t ban the use of facial recognition technology indefinitely, however, if the city opts to purchase and use the technology, the Assembly must approve it, and there must be a public hearing. North Anchorage member Daniel Volland noted that the ordinance was amended to include several exceptions, including when APD partners with other agencies. 

“Municipal law enforcement may intentionally work with third-party agencies that use facial recognition technology to identify human remains or suspected missing persons, suspected victims of human trafficking, or suspected victims of child abuse or exploitation,” Volland said.

The ordinance was approved by the Assembly 10 to 1, with South Anchorage member Randy Sulte opposed. Sulte described the ordinance as “a solution looking for a problem.”

The ordinance does not prevent city employees from using facial recognition on personal devices, such as cellphones that use the technology to unlock devices.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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