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Bills Would Ban Federal Use of Facial Recognition


As experts and privacy advocates continue to voice concerns about the accuracy and biases in facial recognition systems, legislators in both the House of Representatives and Senate are planning to introduce measures to ban the purchase or use of the technology and other biometric recognition and surveillance systems by federal agencies, including law enforcement.

The bills emerge at a time when the use of those technologies by law enforcement during the nationwide protests has drawn sharp criticism. Facial recognition systems are in use in many office buildings, stadiums, and airports, as well as in some public spaces, and it’s often nearly invisible to people in those environments. On Thursday, two Senators and two members of the House announced bills that would ban the use of biometric recognition systems and withhold federal funds from state and local agencies that use those systems. The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act is sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

“Facial recognition technology is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased, and has no place in our society,” said Pressley. “Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it’s critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further. This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement.”

Privacy groups have advocated for a national moratorium on the use of facial recognition systems, and lauded the proposed legislation as a step in the right direction.

“The use of face surveillance technology needs to end. Face surveillance violates Americans’ right to privacy, treats all individuals as suspicious, and threatens First Amendment-protected rights,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, Interim Associate Director and Policy Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Several cities in the United States have banned the use of facial recognition, including San Francisco and Oakland, and just this week the Boston City Council voted unanimously to ban it, too. In March, the state of Washington became the first state to pass a law regulating the use of facial recognition systems, requiring law enforcement agencies to get a warrant in order to run facial recognition scans as part of an investigation.

Research has shown in recent years that facial recognition systems have difficulty identifying specific people, particularly women and people of color. That weakness can lead to misidentifications and potentially wrongful prosecutions. Privacy advocates have warned about the dangers of these problems, and the issues with these systems have led vendors such as IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft to say they will not sell their facial recognition software to police for the time being.

“The use of face surveillance technology needs to end. Face surveillance violates Americans’ right to privacy."

“We will not sell facial-recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” Microsoft President Brad Smith told The Washington Post earlier this month.

The new proposed legislation would prohibit federal entities from buying, using, or accessing any “automated or semi-automated process that—assists in identifying an individual, capturing information about an individual, or otherwise generating or assisting in gen- erating surveillance information about an individual based on the characteristics of the individual’s gait or other immutable characteristic ascertained from a distance.”

The prohibition would apply to voice recognition systems but not fingerprint or palm-print biometrics, and also would allow any use that’s explicitly authorized by an act of Congress. The bills would allow states and localities to pass their own laws, as well.

“Facial recognition technology doesn’t just pose a grave threat to our privacy, it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations in our country. As we work to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society, we can’t ignore the harms that these technologies present,” said Markey.

“I’ve spent years pushing back against the proliferation of facial recognition surveillance systems because the implications for our civil liberties are chilling and the disproportionate burden on communities of color is unacceptable.”