Senators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech


Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bipartisan bill Tuesday requiring law enforcement to obtain court orders to use facial recognition technology for surveillance.

The Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act would limit surveillance warrants to 30 days and set rules to minimize the collection of information about individuals outside of the warrant’s scope.

It would also require judges granting law enforcement requests for using the technology to notify the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which would in turn catalogue the data for Congress.

The bill comes as several cities and states are limiting law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, which scans faces for the purposes of identifying individuals.

Unlike several of those laws, the senators’ bill includes a carveout for “exigent circumstances” where a court order would not be needed to use the technology, which critics argue expands unwarranted surveillance and exacerbates racial discrimination because of a tendency to be inaccurate, especially for people of color.

To bypass court authorization, law enforcement would have to determine their needs make it “impractical to obtain a covered court order” and that there are grounds under which one would be obtained if a request was submitted.

“Right now, there is a lack of uniformity when it comes to how, when, and where the federal government deploys facial recognition technology,” Coons said in a statement.

“This bipartisan bill strikes the right balance by making sure law enforcement has the tools necessary to keep us safe while also protecting fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights.”

Lee said that the power of the tech makes it “ripe for abuse.” 

“That is why American citizens deserve protection from facial recognition abuse,” he continued. “This bill accomplishes that by requiring federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before conducting ongoing surveillance of a target.”

But civil rights groups panned the bill shortly after its release, alleging it gives too much leeway to law enforcement.

“This bill would authorize the invasive, persistent, and dystopian surveillance that communities across the country have rejected,” American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement to The Hill.

“The bill falls woefully short of protecting people’s privacy rights and is inconsistent with existing Supreme Court precedent. Congress should put brakes on this technology, not ineffective band-aids.”

“It has gaping loopholes that authorize the use of facial recognition for all kinds of abusive purposes without proper judicial oversight. It’s good to see that Congress wants to address this issue, but this bill falls utterly short,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit focused on freedom of expression online.

“We need legislation that bans all law enforcement use of facial recognition, and strictly limits its use by private individuals and corporations.”

The tech industry has been more supportive of the legislation.

“These types of policies are necessary and appropriate to address reasonable concerns by the public about how law enforcement might use facial recognition technology in the future and ensure the government uses it appropriately,” Daniel Castro, vice president of the tech-backed group the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in a statement.

“At the same time, this legislation correctly recognizes that facial recognition is a valuable investigatory tool by law enforcement and provides a welcome alternative to bans and moratoriums on this technology.

Updated at 2:13 p.m.

Tags Chris Coons Christopher Coons facial recognition Facial recognition software Mike Lee
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