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Members of Congress push to ban federal use of face recognition

It follows a case in which a man was wrongfully arrested after an incorrect biometric match.
Kris Holt, @krisholt
June 25, 2020
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A group of Democratic Senators and House representatives have introduced a bill that seeks to ban federal use of facial recognition technology. It follows an incident in which Detroit police wrongfully arrested a man after a facial recognition system incorrectly flagged him as a suspect. That’s believed to be the first wrongful arrest of its kind in the US.

Senators Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon) authored the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, which Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley co-sponsored, according to Vice. The aim of the bill is to “prohibit biometric surveillance by the federal government without explicit statutory authorization.”

No federal agency or official would be permitted to “acquire, possess, access or use” biometric surveillance tech in the US under the proposed legislation. Nor could they use any information from a third-party facial recognition system. In addition, the bill would ban the use of federal funds to acquire that type of technology.

The government would be allowed to use facial recognition tech, but only if there were a federal law in place to regulate it. Among the provisions it'd need to have are rules about the use and data retention of such systems; standards for facial recognition accuracy rates by skin color, age and gender; and protections for privacy, free speech and due process.

The bill would also push state and local law enforcement to no longer use such systems. If they persisted without complying with a similar law or policy to the federal one, funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program would be withheld. That program funds training, equipment and supplies for police.

“No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go. No one should have to go through what the Williams family has gone through,” American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a 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. This bill should immediately pass.”

Meanwhile, Robert Williams, the man who was wrongfully arrested after the technology falsely marked him as a suspect, wrote about his experience in a Washington Post op-ed:

“Why is law enforcement even allowed to use such technology when it obviously doesn’t work? I get angry when I hear companies, politicians and police talk about how this technology isn’t dangerous or flawed. What’s worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them. I thought, what’s so terrible if they’re not invading our privacy and all they’re doing is using this technology to narrow in on a group of suspects?”

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