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Four Democrats in Congress announced Thursday that they will introduce legislation to effectively ban the government use of facial recognition technology. (Image: dem10/Getty Images)

'This Bill Should Immediately Pass': Applause for New US Legislation to Ban Facial Recognition

"No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go."

Jessica Corbett

In a move cheered by civil liberties advocates, a quartet of progressives in Congress announced on Thursday they will introduce sweeping legislation to effectively ban government use of facial recognition and other biometric technology nationwide, citing threats to privacy rights and the well established flaws of such tools.

"This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement."
—Rep. Ayanna Pressley

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act (pdf) is sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

The bill is backed by several advocacy groups including the ACLU, Color of Change, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Fight for the Future.

"Facial recognition is the perfect technology for tyranny. It automates discriminatory policing and exacerbates existing injustices in our deeply racist criminal justice system," declared Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer.

This bill is "exactly what we need right now," she added, giving the proposal the group's "full endorsement."

"Congress should pass this bill as soon as possible," Greer continued, urging GOP lawmakers worried about privacy to support it. "Once this bill is passed, Congress should move quickly to pass legislation that also bans corporations, schools, and other private institutions from using facial recognition for surveillance purposes."

Greer, whose group has long called for a total ban, also said that "facial recognition is like nuclear or biological weapons. It poses such a threat to the future of human society that any potential benefits are outweighed by the inevitable harms. This inherently oppressive technology cannot be reformed or regulated. It should be abolished."

Specifically, as a statement from Markey's office outlined, the legislation would:

  • Place a prohibition on the use of facial recognition technology by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;
  • Place a prohibition on the use of other biometric technologies, including voice recognition, gate recognition, and recognition of other immutable physical characteristics, by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;
  • 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 proposal comes exactly one month after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, which sparked a national wave of demonstrations demanding racial justice. Robert Williams, a Michigan man who was arrested by Detroit police in January after state-owned facial recognition software misidentified him as a shoplifting suspect, referenced the ongoing protests in an op-ed about his experience published Wednesday in the Washington Post.

ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney Philip Mayor—who, along with Victoria Burton-Harris of McCaskey Law, PLC, is representing Williams—filed an administrative complaint Wednesday against the Detroit Police Department over the incident.

"No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go. No one should have to go through what the Williams family has gone through," ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement Thursday, welcoming the new bill. "It's past time Congress halted the use of face recognition and stopped federal money from being used to invest in invasive and discriminatory surveillance. This bill should immediately pass."

Williams and his attorneys on Wednesday emphasized that studies have repeatedly revealed the flaws and biases of facial recognition technology, which generally has higher error rates for women and people of color. The sponsors of the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act acknowledged that research—and Williams' case specifically—along with the ongoing protests calling for urgent action to tackle systemic racism and violent policing.

"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," said Markey. "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... In this moment, the only responsible thing to do is to prohibit government and law enforcement from using these surveillance mechanisms."

In the absence of federal action to ban or limit facial recognition tech, local leaders have moved to do so—including the Boston City Council on Wednesday, which Pressley, who represents much of the city, noted Thursday. Pressley—who, as a Black woman, belongs to the demographic with the highest error rate for these kinds of tools—also charged that "facial recognition technology is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased, and has no place in our society."

"Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it's critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further," the congresswoman said. "This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement."

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