Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium
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 Booker (N.J.) and Jeff Merkley (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.
“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.
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 Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Roy Blunt (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 Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (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.
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 Maloney (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 Jordan (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 Thompson (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.