Democratic lawmakers introduce legislation banning government use of facial recognition technologies

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A group of Democratic lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation that would ban the federal government from using facial recognition technology.

The legislation was rolled out following weeks of criticism after the technology was used during protests over the death of George Floyd. 

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act would prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies by all federal groups, a ban that could only be lifted by an act of Congress. This ban would extend to other biometric surveillance systems, including voice recognition tools and any other technology that used physical characteristics to identify an individual.  

The bill would also withhold federal funding from state and local governmental groups, including law enforcement, that failed to ban the use of facial recognition technologies. Any information collected through the use of facial recognition or biometric technologies that violated the proposed bill would not be admissible in court. 

The proposed legislation was rolled out after weeks of protest over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, during which concerns over law enforcement use of facial recognition were raised.

Advocates against the use of facial recognition are concerned that the technologies pose greater risks to non-white individuals. 

The backlash against facial recognition technologies forced groups including Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft to roll back facial recognition work with law enforcement in recent weeks, and the Boston City Council on Wednesday unanimously voted to ban government groups from using these technologies in the city. 

The bill was introduced by Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the Senate, and by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in the House. 

Pressley, whose district covers most of Boston, said in a statement that “facial recognition technology is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased, and has no place in our society.”

“Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it’s critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further,” Pressley added.

“Facial recognition technology doesn’t just pose a grave threat to our privacy, it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations in our country,” Markey said in a statement.  “As we work to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society, we can’t ignore the harms that these technologies present.”

Merkley emphasized that “at a time when Americans are demanding that we address systemic racism in law enforcement, the use of facial recognition technology is a step in the wrong direction.” 

The legislation was introduced the same day the House was set to vote on a sweeping police reform bill, which Jayapal highlighted in a statement. 

“Introduced on the same day that the House is set to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, our legislation will not only protect civil liberties but it will aggressively fight back against racial injustice by stopping federal entities from using facial recognition tools and stripping support for state and local law enforcement departments that use biometric technology,” Jayapal said. 

Multiple advocacy groups have thrown their support behind the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which earlier this week filed a complaint against Detroit police for allegedly wrongfully arresting a Black man identified through flawed facial recognition technology. 

“No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement on Thursday. “It’s past time Congress halted the use of face recognition and stopped federal money from being used to invest in invasive and discriminatory surveillance. This bill should immediately pass.”

Civil rights advocacy group Color of Change was also among organizations expressing support of the bill on Thursday. 

“For Black communities, surveillance is not safety,” Color of Change Senior Campaign Director Brandi Collins-Dexter said in a statement. “We endorse Senator Markey and Representative Pressley’s proposed ban on facial recognition technology because it recognizes the bias baked into its coding, and that especially in the hands of the police, it is a dangerous surveillance tool. 

Collins-Dexter added that “ultimately, facial recognition software will always heighten the tremendous attacks that Black communities already face from law enforcement. We support this bill as a critical step toward a society where our communities can live without surveillance.”

Tags Ayanna Pressley black and brown bodies Black Lives Matter Movement Edward Markey Facial recognition system Jeff Merkley Law enforcement Pramila Jayapal Racial profiling Surveillance systemic racism

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