Democratic lawmakers propose nationwide facial recognition ban

Four Democratic members of Congress unveiled a bill Thursday that would seek to ban facial recognition and other types of surveillance nationwide.

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020 would prohibit federal agencies from investing in facial, voice, or gait recognition technology unless Congress authorizes it. The bill would also curtail the use of biometric surveillance by state and local governments, cutting federal funding if they’re in violation of the law.

Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) have sponsored the bill.

The proposed legislation comes not long after the news that a man in Michigan was arrested after being mistakenly identified by facial recognition software. Experts on facial recognition have warned that false positives are frighteningly common and that algorithms can be inherently biased, with severe consequences for the people affected.

A 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology tested 189 facial recognition algorithms using millions of photos of people from different demographic groups. The researchers found that the algorithms were significantly worse at identifying people of African or Asian descent, noting that “false positive rates are highest in West and East African and East Asian people, and lowest in Eastern European individuals.”

The racial bias in facial recognition algorithms warrants special scrutiny given the recent calls for police reform and racial justice in America.

In a statement, Sen. Markey said “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.”

Alarm over facial recognition has been rising over the last year, particularly over its use by police departments. The public pressure has become so great that major corporations have suspended facial recognition programs. In early June, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna announced that the company would no longer develop facial recognition software. Amazon took a tamer stance, saying that it would ban police departments from using its Rekognition software for a year.

The initial response to the bill from technology activists has been positive. In a statement to Digital Trends, Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz said “Face surveillance is so dangerous to our safety and rights that government must not use it at all,” adding “We look forward to working with the authors to strengthen and enact this bill.”

Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer echoed the sentiment, saying in a statement “Facial recognition is the perfect technology for tyranny. It automates discriminatory policing and exacerbates existing injustices in our deeply racist criminal justice system. This legislation effectively bans law enforcement use of facial recognition in the United States. That’s exactly what we need right now.”

Updated on June 25, 2020: Added more details. This is a developing story. Check back for more updates.

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