Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium

Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium
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Two Democratic senators on Wednesday introduced a bill that would place a moratorium on federal government use of facial recognition technology until Congress passes legislation regulating it.

The Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act, proposed by Democratic Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPreventing next pandemic requires new bill's global solutions Meeting Trump Supreme Court pick a bridge too far for some Democrats Warren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' MORE (N.J.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden renew push for Latino support Sunday shows - Trump team defends coronavirus response Oregon senator says Trump's blame on 'forest management' for wildfires is 'just a big and devastating lie' MORE (Ore.), would also prohibit state and local governments from using federal funds for the controversial technology, which scans faces for the purpose of identification.

It would create a commission tasked with providing recommendations to Congress for future federal government use of facial recognition 18 months after the bill's passage.

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“Facial recognition is a powerful and rapidly evolving technology, but without proper oversight it poses a serious risk to privacy and safety,” Booker said in a statement. 

“Facial recognition technology has been demonstrated to be often inaccurate — misidentifying and disproportionately targeting women and people of color. To protect consumer privacy and safety, Congress must work to set the rules of the road for responsible uses of this technology by the federal government.”

The legislation includes exceptions for use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement with court warrants.

Facial recognition technology has received increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and critics as its use in the United States has grown.

Civil rights groups have panned the technology as unwarranted surveillance, while multiple studies have found that it tends to misidentify women and people of color at comparatively higher rates than men and white people.

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, released an expansive study in December finding that the majority of facial recognition systems have “demographic differentials” that can worsen their accuracy based on a person’s age, gender or race.

Despite rising, bipartisan criticism of facial recognition, there is no federal law specifying when, how or where facial recognition technology can be used.

Several bills have been introduced on the issue, but none have advanced through Congress.

Sens. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDemocrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Democrats turn focus to health care for Supreme Court fight Democratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' MORE (D-Hawaii) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators confident Trump pick to be confirmed by November Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election SCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly MORE (R-Mo.) introduced legislation early last year that would require companies to gain people's consent before using facial recognition technology in public places and before sharing any of their data with third parties.

Sens. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell Coons: 'Defies comprehension' why Trump continues push to 'strip away' protections for pre-existing conditions Two Judiciary Democrats say they will not meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick MORE (D-Del.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeComey defends FBI Russia probe from GOP criticism Supreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting Barrett to sit with McConnell and other GOP senators in back-to-back meetings MORE (R-Utah) more recently introduced a bill requiring law enforcement obtain court orders to use facial recognition software for extended surveillance. Civil rights groups have been critical of 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.

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When asked Wednesday about a federal moratorium, Coons told reporters that it is "certainly a strong approach and certainly a forceful approach."

"My concern would be that there are legitimate uses of facial recognition by federal law enforcement for national security purposes that would be stopped by that, if enacted," he continued.

"For me personally, I felt like an immediate total ban until Congress acts might end up being a ban for a long time," he said.

Booker and Merkley may find allies for their new bill in the House.

In a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on facial recognition earlier this month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested some version of a freeze on the technology.

“It really is not ready for primetime — it can be used in positive ways … but also severely impacts the civil liberties and rights of individuals," Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyPelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence MORE (D-N.Y.) said at the hearing.

"While we're trying to figure out ... what's all happening, let's just not expand it," ranking member Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP seeks to redirect criticism over Trump tax returns Americans are tired of Democrats' politicized investigations against Trump House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic MORE (R-Ohio) told reporters after the hearing, adding that legislation was being drafted to gather information on the use of facial recognition and pause the practice while doing so.

However, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments House approves legislation to send cybersecurity resources to state, local governments House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks MORE (D-Miss.) last week voiced concerns about a federal moratorium, saying that ensuring the technology is accurate is more important concern.

Additionally, Jordan is set to leave his role on the Oversight Committee in the next month, which could set bipartisan negotiations back.