Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward

New bill would bar federal agencies from using facial-recognition technology

June 25, 2020, 9:15 PM UTC

Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is fueled by subscribers. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.

Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday that would ban federal agencies from using facial recognition technology for surveillance.

The proposed bill—introduced by Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—comes amid a heated debate over policing and racial justice. The killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer in May kick-started nationwide protests and reignited concerns about law enforcement using facial recognition and related A.I. technologies, which can be prone to bias or misuse by departments with a history of racial discrimination. 

Last week, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft said they would stop selling facial recognition software to law enforcement. IBM’s policy is in effect indefinitely, while Amazon and Microsoft said theirs are temporary.

“For years, I have called on companies like Amazon to stop selling facial recognition technology that has not only been invasive, inaccurate, and unregulated but has also been unapologetically weaponized by law enforcement against Black people across this country for far too long,” Rep. Jayapal said in a statement.

Several cities including San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, Mass., and Somerville, Mass., have already barred police and other city departments from using facial recognition technologies.

Under the proposed federal bill, agencies, including law enforcement, would be unable to use facial recognition technologies. Biometric technologies like voice-recognition or gate recognition, which identifies people by body shape and walking style, would also be banned.

The bill would give individuals the “right to sue” if federal agencies used any of the banned technology against them. 

In an announcement about the proposed bill, lawmakers highlighted the recent wrongful arrest in Farmington Hills, Mich., of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams as one reason they believed the prohibition is needed. Earlier this year, facial-recognition technology used by police misidentified Williams, leading officers to incorrectly believe he had committed a crime, the New York Times reported.

“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,” Sen. Markey said in a statement. “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.”

It’s unclear whether the proposed bill has enough support to pass. In November, for instance, U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act, which would require federal law enforcement to obtain court orders before they can use facial-recognition technologies. Nothing significant has happened to that bill since.