Senators introduce bill to regulate facial recognition technology

Senators introduce bill to regulate facial recognition technology
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of senators on Thursday introduced a bill that would regulate the commercial use of facial recognition technology, an issue that has gained steam as critics have raised civil rights concerns over the relatively unregulated technology.

Sens. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzWarren introduces bill targeted at food insecurity on college campuses On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing MORE (D-Hawaii) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm Top Democrat demands answers on election equipment vulnerabilities MORE (R-Mo.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced the first-of-its-kind legislation, which has endorsements from Microsoft and digital rights group the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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"Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their data is being collected and used, including data collected through facial recognition technology," Blunt said in a statement. “That’s why we need guardrails to ensure that, as this technology continues to develop, it is implemented responsibly."

Facial recognition technology analyzes human faces for the purpose of identifying them. Amazon's facial recognition technology, Rekognition, in particular has come under fire for misidentifying people of color as criminals during research, and privacy advocates have long said facial recognition tech offers governments and companies excessive access to information about peoples' daily lives. 

Under Schatz and Blunt's bill, the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act, companies would be required to gain peoples' consent before using facial recognition technology in public places and before sharing any of their data with third parties.

It would also require human reviewers to test any products before they are implemented, an effort to weed out issues with algorithmic bias and accuracy before the technologies become available to the public.

"Our faces are our identities," Schatz said in a statement. "They’re personal. So the responsibility is on companies to ask people for their permission before they track and analyze their faces."

"Our bill makes sure that people are given the information and – more importantly  – the control over how their data is shared with companies using facial recognition technology," Schatz said.

The legislation would ask facial recognition technology providers to meet security standards set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Multiple leading tech companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, in recent months have released guidelines laying out their priorities for any national legislation regulating facial recognition technology.

Schatz and Blunt's bill appears to propose some similar guidelines, but it does not address the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement — a hot-button issue as police departments across the country implement the technology in their efforts to track and identify potential criminals.

Progressive lawmakers, civil rights groups and privacy advocates last year criticized Amazon over its facial recognition technology contracts with law enforcement agencies, pointing out that the technology has misidentified people of color and, during one test, wrongly identified members of Congress as criminals.

Amazon previously has responded by insisting that researchers had used the technology incorrectly.

Microsoft in December called for Congress to take on the issue of regulating facial recognition technology. 

“Facial recognition technology creates many new benefits for society and should continue to be developed," Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, said in a statement about the bill. "Its use, however, needs to be regulated to protect against acts of bias and discrimination, preserve consumer privacy, and uphold our basic democratic freedoms."