Democratic lawmakers just introduced a bill that would ban the use of facial recognition technology by federal law enforcement

Customs and Border Protection officers set up facial recognition scanners in O’Hare International Airport in July 2017. Brian Cassella/Getty Images
  • Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill that would ban the use of facial recognition technology by federal law enforcement, as reported by Vice on Thursday.
  • The proposed bill would “prohibit biometric surveillance” unless a federal law is passed with extensive regulations around its use, and makes federal funding for local and state governments contingent on them establishing similar bans.
  • Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Jeff Merkeley and Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Pramila Jayapal introduced the bill Thursday.
  • Facial recognition has come under increasing scrutiny amid mounting evidence of racial bias, leading some companies to pause sales of their tools to law enforcement and several local governments to enact bans on the technology.
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Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would indefinitely prohibit the federal government from using facial recognition technology and other types of “biometric surveillance,” Vice reported on Thursday.

The bill would make it illegal for federal agencies to “acquire, possess, access, or use” any technology that collects information about people using biometric data – such as facial features, voice patterns, or their gait – unless a law is passed that includes strict regulations around data collection, sharing, and fairness as well as protections for civil rights.

The bill would also withhold federal “Justice Assistance Grants” – which dole out on average around $US435 million per year to law enforcement – from state and local governments who use the technology.

Four Democratic lawmakers – Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkeley, as well as Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal – introduced the bill Thursday.

Facial recognition technology, in particular its use by law enforcement, has come under fire in recent weeks amid growing evidence that it discriminates against people based on skin colour and gender as well as nationwide protests against police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system.

A sweeping federal study in December found that facial recognition systems were worse at identifying people of colour and women than white people and men, confirming existing studies by MIT researchers Joy Buolamwini and Deborah Raji showing bias in Amazon’s Rekognition software.

After years of calls from civil rights advocates including the ACLU and Fight for the Future, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM announced earlier this month that they would temporarily stop selling their facial recognition tools to law enforcement.

However, civil rights groups have criticised the moves as not going far enough, and The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the industry’s largest players, including NEC, Ayonix, and controversial company Clearview AI have doubled down on their law enforcement business.

Some local governments have also halted the use of facial recognition technology. On Wednesday, Boston’s city council voted unanimously to enact a citywide ban, following similar moves by San Francisco as well as five other municipalities in Massachusetts, according to WBUR.