Senators defend bipartisan bill on facial recognition as cities crack down

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Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Thursday defended their proposal to require that law enforcement obtain court orders to use facial recognition software for extended surveillance as a balanced first step amid local pushes to suspend the technology entirely.

“The United States … has long had to strike a balance between civil liberties and public safety,” Coons said during an event at the Brookings Institution. “While advances are making our lives markedly easier, it’s also critical that we understand the real costs that come with these increases and advances in technology today.”

“We decided that it was important to find a reasonable approach to balancing the interests that we have at stake here,” Lee said. “The obvious civil liberties concerns that Americans have and what it provides to law enforcement.”

The two senators, both members of the powerful Judiciary Committee, introduced the Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act last month in a rare show of bipartisan interest in addressing the controversial technology.

The bill would limit long-term surveillance warrants for the technology 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 proposal has been criticized heavily by opponents of facial recognition technology, which scans faces to quickly identify individuals.

Civil rights groups have pointed to carveouts in the legislation, specifically one which allows for “exigent circumstances” where a court order would not be needed to make use of the technology.

Coons acknowledged Thursday that constant facial recognition surveillance in public settings “causes obvious and significant Fourth Amendment concerns,” but argued that his bill would obviate those worries. He said that benefits for law enforcement, specifically being able to apprehend terrorists quickly and locating people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, make outright bans untenable.

Opponents and several of the cities that have banned law enforcement from using the technology have also said it exacerbates racial discrimination because of a tendency to be inaccurate, especially for people of color.

“By requiring testing and by working with NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] and requiring regular reporting on this, we think we can work the kinks out of the system,” Lee said Thursday when asked about those concerns.

“Some of the biases inherent in the system relate to just inadequate data built up already,” he continued.

“Part of the challenge, I think, is the data pools they’ve been drawing from overwhelmingly rely on photo arrays of people who are incarcerated,” Coons chimed in. “There needs to be broader data used and much more careful attention to the ways in which existing biases in our society and our criminal justice system are being compounded by the early stage deployment of facial recognition technology here.”

Both senators stressed repeatedly that striking a balance between outright moratoriums on the technology and unregulated law enforcement access is key, painting their legislation as a first step in the discussion.

“An overweening, overreaching overly powerful government that can collect data on us all the time, everywhere anywhere and doesn’t have guardrails in terms of how it’s using that tool can initially begin trying to interdict and prevent crime, or trying to prosecute crime, and can quickly bleed over into interfering with what I think is the most American right… the right to have an opinion,” Coons said at the event’s close.

Tags Brookings Institution Chris Coons Christopher Coons Facial recognition system facial recognition technology Mike Lee

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