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Feds would be banned from using facial recognition under new bill

Feds would be banned from using facial recognition under new bill


And it’d make it harder for local police to use it, too

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Illustration of several faces, with one highlighted.
Illustration by Alex Castro / Th

On Thursday, Democrats introduced a new bill that would ban federal law enforcement from using facial recognition technology and make it more difficult for state and local police departments to use the tech.

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020, introduced by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) on Thursday, would ban federal agencies from using facial recognition technology and force state and local police departments to enact similar policies in order to receive federal grants. The bill would effectively prohibit the tech’s use until Congress passes a law explicitly allowing it.

“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,” said Sen. Markey. “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.”

The bill comes amid widespread protests against police violence and growing controversy around facial recognition systems. On Wednesday, Boston voted to ban the use of facial recognition in the city, becoming the second-largest municipality in the world to do so. Boston’s city council voted Wednesday to ban the tech with a veto-proof majority. California, New Hampshire, and Oregon all ban the use of the technology in police body cameras, and Oakland and San Francisco have banned its use by city agencies. 

The technology is also facing new legal challenges. Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan filed an administrative complaint with Detroit’s police department over what could be the US’s first known wrongful arrest involving facial recognition technology. According to the ACLU’s complaint, Detroit law enforcement believed that a man named Robert Williams stole several watches from a local store last January after following a lead provided through facial recognition. Williams was arrested outside of his home in January and spent over 30 hours in a detention center outside of Detroit.

The new bill would also directly target one of the federal programs that dole out millions of dollars to state and local law enforcement and corrections programs across the country, known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. The Byrne grant program made $264 million available to state police departments last year, according to the program’s website

While support in Congress is still muted, the proposal would be a huge win for privacy advocates who, for years, have urged caution in the use of biometric identification systems. “Facial recognition is like nuclear or biological weapons. It poses such a threat to the future of human society that any potential benefits are outweighed by the inevitable harms,” Evan Greer, deputy director for Fight for the Future, said in a statement Thursday. “This inherently oppressive technology cannot be reformed or regulated. It should be abolished.”