New legislation put forward by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Bernie Sanders on Tuesday would curb the use of facial recognition software by corporations and help to slow the spread of "abusive" surveillance, according to leading privacy advocates.
Similar to Illinois' Biometric Information Privacy Act, which has been in place since 2008, the Merkley-Sanders legislation would bar corporations from using facial recognition without the knowledge and explicit affirmative consent of customers.
"Do we really want to live under constant surveillance by unaccountable corporations? I don't. We cannot allow Orwellian facial recognition technology to continue to violate the privacy and civil liberties of the American people," Sanders told Business Insider Tuesday.
"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."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
The Illinois law has resulted in $650 million in fines for Facebook over its use of facial recognition-enabled tagging in the state, and was cited by the ACLU in May when the group sued Clearview AI over its collection and storing of the data of residents without their knowledge of consent.
The digital rights group Fight for the Future, which launched its nationwide campaign demanding a federal ban on all facial recognition technology last year, expressed support for the National Biometric Information Privacy Act even though it falls short of an outright ban.
"We believe most private and corporate uses of facial recognition should be banned entirely, but this new legislation will play an important role in slowing down the unfettered creep of this technology into our daily lives, giving us time to have a meaningful debate about whether artificial intelligence powered surveillance systems should be used at all all in a free and open society," Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement.
Merkley and Sanders introduced the legislation days after Reuters reported that the Rite-Aid drugstore chain has spied on customers in about 200 stores across the U.S. using facial recognition over the past eight years. Many of the stores equipped with the technology, without the knowledge of consumers, are in low-income, largely-minority neighborhoods.
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Facial recognition has been shown to disproportionately misidentify people of color, according to a landmark federal study published last year.
"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," said Greer. "That would be enormously invasive, and exacerbate existing forms of discrimination. 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."
Under Merkley and Sanders' legislation, companies would need consent to gather biometric data including retina or iris scans, voiceprints, faceprints including those derived from a photograph, fingerprints or palm prints, and any "uniquely identifying information based on the characteristics of an individual's gait or other immutable characteristic of an individual."
"We can't let companies scoop up or profit from people's faces and fingerprints without their consent," Merkley told Recode. "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."
Fight for the Future, which has also fought the use of facial recognition by law enforcement and other government agencies, warned that Americans should be just as concerned about the use of the technology by private companies.
"From targeting people with creepy and discriminatory advertisements based on their face to harvesting and selling our sensitive biometric data, there are so many ways corporations can abuse our rights with facial recognition," said Greer. "Unless we organize to stop it, the surveillance dystopia of our nightmares may be offered up by corporations in the name of convenience, rather than imposed by an authoritarian government."