The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dubbed 2019 the year that proved that ubiquitous facial recognition surveillance isn’t inevitable. The latest (tentative) win for legislative restrictions on the increasingly pervasive technology: the state of Washington.
On Wednesday, the state senate passed a bill – Senate Bill 6280 – that would prohibit state and local government agencies from using facial recognition in most instances, including…
Ongoing surveillance – meaning tracking people as they move through public places over time, be it in real-time or through use of a service that relies on historical records.
Persistent tracking – which refers to the use of facial recognition to persistently track someone without first having identified them or verified their identity.
If passed, the law will require law enforcement to first get a search warrant before using those types of faceprint-reliant tracking and surveillance, or else would be limited to emergency situations in which people’s lives are at risk.
From here, the bill goes to the state House for consideration.
The latest version of the bill specifies that at least 90 days before government agencies adopt a new facial recognition technology, they must inform the public about the technology in question – in detail.
Accountability reports would have to include the name of the technology, the vendor, what kind of data it collects and from where, how that data is processed, why and how it’s going to be used, data or research that demonstrates its supposed benefits, whether it’s going to be used by other agencies and how, data retention policy, how data will be securely stored and accessed, and how it’s going to affect civil rights and liberties… to name a few.
It would be an understatement to say that this type of transparency would be a marked change from the secretive (and sometimes slapdash) way in which agencies have been adopting the technology to surveil people, often without the need for warrants.
SB 6280 would also require that decisions with legal implications that are based on facial-recognition programs be reviewed by an agency worker with training on the technology – someone with authority to reverse the decision, according to analysis (PDF) from the Washington senate committee on Environment, Energy and Technology.
Examples of such decisions include whether or not somebody gets a loan, housing, insurance, health care, and educational or job opportunities. If a given program does have such an impact, it would have to be tested before being deployed. The bill would also set training standards for government employees handling personal data gleaned from facial recognition.
According to the Seattle Times, SB 6280 is likely going to face resistance in the House, where a competing bill – House Bill 2856 (PDF) – would go further still, by imposing a moratorium on local and state facial recognition programs until 1 July, 2023.
The Seattle Times quoted the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debra Entenman, who is herself one of the people whom facial recognition most frequently fails to correctly identify: a black woman.
[This debate is about] having a technology that is not ready to be used in the public sphere.
As an African American woman, I am of course concerned about the fact that law enforcement and others believe that this technology will make people safer.
The Seattle Times also quoted the Senate bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Nguyen:
Right now, facial-recognition technology is being used unchecked and with little recourse. And tech companies generally don’t care about the moral values of the products they are creating.
Running tally of pushback
In October, the state of California outlawed facial recognition in police bodycams. Some of its biggest cities have gone further still in restricting the controversial technology, including San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland.
Outside of California, government use of facial recognition has also been banned in three Massachusetts municipalities: Somerville, Northampton and Brookline. New York City tenants also successfully stopped their landlord’s efforts to install facial recognition technology to open the front door to their buildings.