Lawmakers call for 'time out' on facial recognition tech

Lawmakers call for 'time out' on facial recognition tech
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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came out aggressively against the widespread deployment of facial recognition technology on Wednesday, signaling they plan to draft legislation that would curb or even halt its implementation.

"It seems to me it’s time for a time out," House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHorowitz to appear before second Senate panel next week Top Republican requests House hearing with DOJ inspector general Trump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting MORE (R-Ohio) said during the Wednesda hearing. "[This technology] is virtually unregulated — but I think that frankly needs to change." 

The intensifying federal scrutiny comes amid a national debate over facial recognition technology, which has drawn criticism from privacy and civil rights activists who have called for stringent new restrictions.

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Some cities are already taking action, led by San Francisco's unprecedented decision last week to ban its government agencies from using facial recognition technology. Similar proposals are being weighed in Oakland, Calif., and Somerville, Mass., and more are expected to emerge as activists turn up the heat on a battle they say has resonated better with average Americans more than other fights over privacy.

"People from all backgrounds understand this issue like no other surveillance issue I've worked on," Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, said on a call with reporters last week. "It resonates with people and they understand it." 

Those concerns received a voice before the House Oversight hearing as a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers expressed nearly identical concerns over the potential for facial recognition technology to violate Americans' constitutional rights. And they agreed across the aisle on the "urgent" need for more oversight and better regulations, with multiple lawmakers calling for an all-out moratorium on the technology until the concerns over its potential civil liberties and civil rights violations can be resolved. 

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows says he's advocating for Trump to add Alan Dershowitz to impeachment defense team State Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the worst agencies on IT issues Trump abandons plan to dissolve Office of Personnel Management: report MORE (R-N.C.) called the issue a "sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together." 

"When you have a diverse group on this committee, as diverse as you might see on the polar ends, I’m here to tell you, we’re serious about this and let’s get together and work on legislation and it is the time is now, before it gets out of control," Meadows said. 

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCongressional investigation finds Coast Guard leadership fell short on handling bullying Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list Impeachment can't wait MORE (D-Md.) said he believes the committee can go about legislation on facial recognition tech in a "bipartisan way."

"That’s music to my ears," Cummings added 

Facial recognition technology analyzes human faces for the purpose of identifying them. And a growing number of critics argue it can be used to disproportionately surveil minorities and dissenters as police officers use the software to track and identify people in public places across the U.S.  

Companies that make and market the technology are also under pressure.

Amazon shareholders on Wednesday at the company's annual meeting were weighing two proposals to limit Amazon's deployment of its controversial facial recognition software, Rekognition. At the tail end of the congressional hearing, Amazon confirmed that its shareholders had voted down the Rekognition proposals, a move that was widely expected after the Amazon board came out against them. 

The first shareholder proposal would have forced Amazon to stop selling Rekognition unless its board determined that the technology does not violate civil liberties and civil rights. The second would have authorized a study on the potentially discriminatory effects the software can pose. 

Rep. Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezFormer undocumented workers fired from Trump properties attend Biden campaign event House Democrats offer bill to expand the estate tax House Democrats blur lines on support for impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), who said he has met with Amazon nine times about his concerns over Rekognition, said the decision to reject those proposals only bolstered his belief that Congress needs to step in.

"I just got word that the shareholders did not end up passing a ban on the sale of Rekognition," Gomez said at the hearing. "That just means that it's more important that Congress acts." 

The House hearing featured some of the top facial recognition and privacy scholars in the country, including Joy Buolamwini, whose groundbreaking 2018 research found that facial recognition products from top tech companies IBM, Microsoft and Amazon misidentified women and people of color at higher rates.  

Buolamwini, along with two of the other witnesses on the panel, called for a "moratorium" on the use of facial recognition technology, saying its risks outweigh any potential benefits and pointing to instances in which it has already resulted in discrimination against marginalized communities. She laid out a framework for legislation on the issue, saying it should include "affirmative consent, meaningful transparency and continuous oversight."

She repeatedly pointed out that the datasets used to train facial recognition technology are "pale and male," meaning they overrepresent white men, leading to technology that misrecognizes or does not compute the faces of those of any other demographic.

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blasts Tucker Carlson as 'white supremacist sympathizer' Julián Castro jabs ICE: 'Delete your account' MORE (D-N.Y.), who is a member of the committee, highlighted the issue of diversity.

"We have a technology that was created and designed by one demographic, that is mostly effective on one demographic, and they're trying to sell it and impose it on the entirety of the country," Ocasio-Cortez said after questioning Buolamwini on her research.

The harsh warnings from lawmakers drew pushback from the tech industry and industry advocates.

Daniel Castro, the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in a blog post on Wednesday argued for the benefits of the technology, writing police should be allowed to use "the latest technologies to keep citizens and communities safe." 

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using facial recognition software to identify potential criminals, and it has been used to help find murderers in some high-profile cases over the past few years, supporters have noted.

"We think it’s important for Congress to exercise oversight on this important issue and continue to support the creation of a national legislative framework covering facial recognition," Amazon said. Earlier this year, the tech behemoth put out a proposal for federal legislation that would allow law enforcement to continue to use the technology, provided agencies implement adequate safeguards. 

The company in the statement said it believes facial recognition can "materially benefit society."

An IBM spokesperson in an emailed statement said, "IBM is committed to proactively addressing the societal impacts of technology." 

Microsoft has also put out its own call for national legislation and has so far declined to sell its facial recognition product to law enforcement over police abuse concerns.

As it stands, the U.S. has no federal law overseeing the use of facial recognition technology by government agencies or private companies. And at the hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers made it clear they hope to pass legislation sooner rather than later as the technology continues to proliferate unabated.

"We’ve never seen anything like this technology before," Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative council at the ACLU and witness at the hearing, said on Wednesday. "The U.S. reportedly has over 50 million surveillance cameras. This, combined with face recognition threatens, to create a near-constant surveillance state."

"It's urgent that Congress act now," she said.