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Republicans and Democrats agree: it’s time to regulate facial recognition tech

Republicans and Democrats agree: it’s time to regulate facial recognition tech


But it’s still unclear what legislation might look like

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Republican and Democratic leaders discussed growing concerns over the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement. In an unusual show of bipartisanship, both parties agreed it was time to take a hard look at the technology and potentially draft legislation to regulate it.

The hearing, held by the House Oversight Committee, was the first in a series of hearings that will analyze the impacts of facial recognition technology offered by Amazon and other companies. Wednesday’s panel was focused on the implications the technology poses to American civil liberties when used by law enforcement.

”You’ve now hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told panelists. The chairman of the committee, civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), responded by saying, “That’s music to my ears.”

“The failures of the technology will disproportionately harm communities of color.”

Federal agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are not currently required to obtain a warrant prior to using facial data to identify potential criminal suspects. It’s unclear how the committee plans to draft legislation to combat potential violations, but members on both sides of the aisle voiced concern that facial scans on United States citizens may be violating constitutional rights.

“Companies, governments and agencies can essentially steal and use your biometric data without your consent,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said. “This is America and we have a right to privacy.”

Panelists like Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, and Clare Garvie, senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, warned that the technology is being rolled out too quickly and has serious flaws that could lead investigators to misidentify potential suspects.

“The technology itself also suffers from critical technical flaws and bias problems and, as a consequence, the failures of the technology will disproportionately harm communities of color,” Garvie said. “Making matters worse, some entities misuse and abuse this technology, and often shroud their possession and use of it in secrecy.”

These imperfection claims led members like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) to suggest pressing the “pause” button on further implementation and perhaps imposing a moratorium for law enforcement to cease its use until it becomes more accurate.

Earlier this month, San Francisco became the first US city to place limits on the use of facial recognition technology outright. The new rule will take effect in the next few weeks and would prohibit city agencies and law enforcement from using it. If law enforcement were to use facial recognition, it would need approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors and to comply with surveillance audits.

Committee members weren’t clear on what facial recognition legislation might look like, but they agreed something has to be done to protect the rights of American citizens.

“There’s a lot of agreement here,” Cummings said. “Thank God.”