Legislation banning government use of facial recognition technology hits the Senate for the third time

Biometric technology may make it easier to unlock your phone, but Democratic lawmakers have long warned against the use of facial recognition and biometrics by law enforcement. Not only have researchers documented instances of racial and gender bias in such systems, false positives have led to real cases of wrongful arrest. That’s why lawmakers reintroduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Act. This is the third time the bill has been introduced to the Senate — although it was introduced in 2020 and 2021, the bill has not been put to a vote.

If passed, the Face Recognition and Biotechnology Act would completely ban any use of facial recognition or biometric surveillance by the federal government. unless This use is expressly approved by an Act of Congress. This consent itself would be very limited: you would need to specify who was allowed to use biometric monitoring, the exact type of biometric monitoring they would use and the specific purpose for which it would be used. Approval will also have the burden of more restrictions, such as adherence to minimum accuracy rates that will hopefully avoid false positives in the rare cases when technology is approved for use.

The bill also hopes to encourage local and state governments to follow its lead, including a provision that would tie some federal funding to local law enforcement to compliance with “substantially similar” bans on facial recognition and biometrics.

While the bill hasn’t had much luck making it to the floor of either house of Congress, some states and local governments have been banning facial recognition technology on their own. In 2020, Portland Oregon has put in place strict safeguards for the use of facial recognition technology. New York State and Massachusetts have also placed restrictions on the use of biometrics. The IRS even backtracked on its plans to use facial recognition for identity verification purposes.

That sounds encouraging for the reintroduced bill, but that momentum isn’t universal: Law enforcement still sees biometrics as a useful tool for crime investigation, and the Transportation Security Administration has been testing systems that compare travelers to the photo on their passport or driver’s license.

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