The state-funded program allowed Portland police to equip downtown bars and clubs in recent weeks with high-tech ID scanners that captured patrons’ names, ages and photos for upload to a central database, which police could then access.
There’s no indication patrons knew they were being tracked.
“We tried to say ‘no’ at the very beginning, and police strongly encouraged that we should do it,” says Mike Reed, general manager of the Boiler Room and Jones Bar, both located in Old Town. “We don’t want to track people’s every move. We considered that a possible issue.”
Despite his misgivings, Reed gave the scanners a try. So did a dozen other downtown clubs.
With government agencies already surreptitiously gathering information without warrants, the Portland program raised questions about transparency and privacy.
It might also have been illegal.
“It really is an illuminating example of where our privacy laws are, and our disconnect in a modern digital world,” says Becky Straus, lobbyist for ACLU Oregon.
Straus is referring to a 2009 Oregon law that limits companies’ legal ability to collect, store or share information from ID scanners. Straus says she was unaware Portland bars were collecting such data, or that police could grab it.
“We had wondered, when we wandered around Old Town, whether bars were complying with the swiping law,” she says.
Club manager Reed says police assured bar owners that it was legal to gather customers’ information and to share it with law enforcement.
“To our understanding, we’re doing everything within the law,” Reed says. “Police were definitely the big promoter of the scanners.”
Neither Portland police nor the city attorney was aware of the 2009 law until WW raised the question. “We‘re glad when someone brings this up. We want to do what’s best to protect public safety and protect people’s rights,” Multnomah County spokesman David Austin tells WW.
Austin said the county is meeting with state and local law enforcement in the coming week to determine how to move forward
“If we learn that information was being maintained in violation of state law, we would seek to remedy the situation, to make sure the technology is used within compliance,” says Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson.
He says the police don’t own the scanners, and so aren’t responsible for how they were used.
“It’s an issue between the bars and the company,” he says. “We recommend a lot of things to people, but it’s up to the individual to make sure it’s compliant.”
The program was designed to combat underaged drinking.
In 2011, the state awarded Multnomah County a three-year grant to reduce alcohol abuse. Last year, the county gave $60,000 to Lines for Life, a nonprofit that works on reducing substance abuse, to purchase scanners for Old Town bars and clubs.
The bars used the scanners, Lines for Life owned them and Portland police controlled the devices. Police ensured clubs were using them.
“If we don’t use it, they know,” a downtown bouncer tells WW.
A few club owners turned down the free scanners. One owner says he added surveillance cameras when police asked. “I happily installed those. But this was going too far,” the club owner says. “It felt invasive.”
The scanners, made by Servall Data Systems of Calgary, Alberta, collect patrons’ names and ages while a camera captures their photo. The information is stored in a database shared by all clubs with the scanners for 90 days.
If a club ejects a patron, the bouncer can flag that person in the database. If that customer then tries to enter another bar, the database alerts the other club.
When a crime occurs, Portland police can ask Servall for access to the data—no subpoena needed, says Servall president Alberio Frota. Bars already freely share with police the data they gather, say bouncers at multiple clubs across the city.
In October, Tiffany Jenks, 35, was shot to death in Blue Lake Park in Fairview. Police quickly arrested three suspects—based in part, court records show, on evidence gleaned from ID scanners.
Other cities are already using the sophisticated scanners.
Vancouver, B.C., bars began using ID scanners in the early 2000s, and crime in the city’s bar district plummeted within six months, says Vance Campbell, a club owner who spearheaded the initiative. The city of San Francisco also encourages its downtown clubs to invest in ID scanners.
Some Portland bar employees say the scanners keep police and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission happy. Most say the scanners make their jobs easier.
“If someone hits me, I don’t have to beat their ass,” says a bouncer at another eastside strip club that purchased a scanner. Instead, the club simply turns the assailant’s record over to police.
But others worry they are helping create Big Brother.
“I like having the scanner,” says a bouncer who asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak to the press. “But what does that data do? People don’t know; we haven’t given them the choice.”
Some younger customers in Old Town told WW they didn’t know what the ID scanners could do, nor did they care.
“Millennials don’t care,” said Scott Lansing of Portland, standing outside the Rainbow Room as two of his friends wrestled in the snow. “We’ve just been brought up to expect that everyone has access to that information.”
Maybe some people don’t care, says public defender Chris O’Connor. But plenty of people would have a problem, he adds, if they knew their nighttime entertainment could be tracked.
“Maybe some Mormons don’t want people to know they’re going into a bar, maybe someone doesn’t want his probation officer to know he’s going into a bar,” O’Connor says. “Maybe so-and-so doesn’t want his wife to know where he’s been over the last 90 days.”
WW staff writer Aaron Mesh contributed reporting for this story.