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Federal bill would ban corporate facial recognition without consent

Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced a bill on Tuesday to prevent private corporations from collecting facial recognition data without people’s consent. 

Merkley’s National Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2020 calls for explicit written consent from a person or customer before a business can use and collect biometric information. The act also prohibits a private entity from selling, leasing, or using the biometric data for advertising purposes or any other purpose that profits that business. 

If companies fail to comply with the proposed restrictions, they could be subject to lawsuits from both individuals and State Attorneys General.

“We can’t let companies scoop up or profit from people’s faces and fingerprints without their consent,” Merkley said in a statement. “We have to fight against a ‘big brother’ surveillance state that eradicates our privacy and our control of our own information, be it a threat from the government or from private companies.”

The bill is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Technology Institute, and Fight for the Future.

Fight for the Future, a digital rights group that has previously called to ban facial recognition entirely, said that this new legislation would play an essential role in slowing down the use of the technology.

Facial Recognition
Design Cells / Getty Images

“Right now in most states in the U.S., it would be totally legal for a big box store to set up surveillance cameras, scan the faces of everyone entering the store and compare them to a public mugshot database. That would be enormously invasive, and exacerbate existing forms of discrimination,” said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s deputy director. “If this legislation passes, that sort of creepy corporate surveillance would be impossible, because the store would have to obtain the affirmative consent of every customer before scanning their face.”

Merkley’s legislation would apply to all states and borrows from a similar law that already exists in Illinois called the Biometric Identity Privacy Act. That law resulted in a $650 million settlement between Facebook and Illinois after the social network did not properly get users’ consent for its photo-tagging feature. 

Aside from privacy issues, facial recognition technology is widely reported to misidentify the wrong person and have racial biases. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found facial analysis software is more likely to misidentify people of color, specifically women of color. 

A more recent study by the National Institutes of Science and Technology found that facial recognition technology misidentifies Black and Asian people up to 100 times more often than white people. 

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