Federal lawmakers seek ban on government use of facial recognition

June 29, 2020
Proposed legislation would also prohibit authorities from using a variety of other biometric technologies

In the wake of moves by several cities across the country to ban government use of facial recognition solutions in recent months, a group of congressional lawmakers last week introduced bicameral legislation that would prohibit federal agencies from using the technology as well as strip support from state and local law enforcement agencies that also leverage it.

In addition, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, which was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), would also prohibit the use of other biometric technologies, including voice recognition, gait recognition, and recognition of other immutable physical characteristics. You can read the bill in its entirety here.

“At a time when Americans are demanding that we address systemic racism in law enforcement, the use of facial recognition technology is a step in the wrong direction. Studies show that this technology brings racial discrimination and bias,” Merkley said in a statement announcing the legislation. “Between the risks of sliding into a surveillance state we can't escape from and the dangers of perpetuating discrimination, this technology is not ready for prime time. The federal government must ban facial recognition until we have confidence that it doesn’t exacerbate racism and violate the privacy of American citizens.”

Aside from banning the use of facial recognition and other biometric products by federal authorities, the proposed legislation would:

  • 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;
  • Prohibit the use of federal dollars for biometric surveillance systems;
  • Prohibit the use of information collected via biometric technology in violation of the Act in any judicial proceedings;
  • Includes a private right of action for individuals whose biometric data is used in violation of the Act and allows for enforcement by state Attorneys General; and
  • Allow states and localities to enact their own laws regarding the use of facial recognition and biometric technologies.

The Security Industry Association (SIA) on Friday released a statement on Friday announcing its opposition to the legislation, saying that the technology that powers facial recognition is “highly accurate and has vastly improved in the past few years.”  

“The bill would impose a blanket ban on most federal use of nearly all biometric and related image analytics technologies, incorrectly labeling all such technologies as surveillance regardless of application, while forcing essentially all state and local governments to do the same,” the statement read. “The legislation threatens the safety of Americans by eliminating certain tools that have been in use for a decade or more to solve thousands of crimes, prevent fraud, allow access to critical infrastructure and, overall, keep Americans safe, while negating the research put into improving and developing safe, reliable and unbiased technology. “

Speaking about the use of facial recognition by the public sector, Don Erickson, CEO of SIA, said: “When used effectively and responsibly, facial recognition technology keeps people safe and brings value to our everyday lives. While SIA welcomes a constructive dialogue over the use of facial recognition technology, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act is regrettably not a workable solution to address reasonable concerns about the use of facial recognition. Alternatively, SIA would enthusiastically support legislation that ensures appropriate transparency, procedures and oversight.”