Lawmakers have proposed legislation that would indefinitely ban the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement nationwide. The new bill comes after months of public concerns surrounding facial recognition’s implications for data privacy, government surveillance and racial bias.
The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act was proposed Thursday by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). While various cities have banned government use of the technology (with Boston this week becoming the tenth U.S. city to do so), the bill would be the first temporary ban on facial recognition technology ever enacted nationwide.
The newly proposed bill would “prohibit biometric surveillance by the Federal Government without explicit statutory authorization and to withhold certain Federal public safety grants from State and local governments that engage in biometric surveillance.”
That means federal agencies would be barred from using biometric surveillance systems (which in addition to facial recognition can also include voice recognition). Additionally, it would prohibit the use of federal dollars to be spent on facial recognition technology, and “condition federal grant funding to state and local entities, including law enforcement, on those entities enacting their own moratoria on the use of facial recognition and biometric technology.”
The ban has no definitive time limit in place, and would continue until Congress passed a law to lift it.
Privacy concerns around facial recognition – and specifically racial biases of the technology – came to a head earlier this week. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint saying an African American man was arrested in Detroit , after a facial recognition system falsely matched his photo with security footage of a shoplifter. According to the ACLU, this is the first known example of a wrongful arrest caused by faulty facial recognition technology.
“No one should have to go through what the Williams family has gone through,” said Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, in a Thursday statement. “It’s past time Congress halted the use of face recognition and stopped federal money from being used to invest in invasive and discriminatory surveillance.”
Tech companies and privacy advocates alike are putting their feet down when it comes to the inherent racial biases that facial recognition technology could potentially bring to the table. Recently, more than 1,000 technology experts and academics from organizations such as MIT, Microsoft, Harvard and Google signed an open letter denouncing a forthcoming paper describing artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can predict crime based only on a person’s face, calling it out for promoting racial bias.
Microsoft, Amazon and IBM, meanwhile, which have all developed their own facial recognition platforms, all recently banned the sale of the technology to police departments and pushed for federal laws to regulate the technology.
“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,” said Senator Markey in a statement. “In this moment, the only responsible thing to do is to prohibit government and law enforcement from using these surveillance mechanisms.”
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