Democrats and progressives in Congress reintroduced a bill on Tuesday that would ban the government from using facial recognition technology as increasing surveillance and police violence pose a threat to marginalized communities.
The bill would also prevent the government from using biometric technologies like voice and gait recognition, while providing individuals a legal pathway against having their biometric data used illegally. It was crafted in response to reports that facial recognition tools like Clearview AI have been used by law enforcement and government agencies to incriminate and arrest people, especially Black men, often over false accusations.
The bill was introduced by a group of 16 Democratic and progressive lawmakers, including Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Cori Bush (D-Missouri). It has been endorsed by advocacy groups like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Main Street Alliance and the ACLU.
As the lawmakers pointed out in a press release, research has found that facial recognition technology is extremely widespread.
According to a Georgetown University report from 2016, half of American adults’ faces are logged in law enforcement facial recognition databases. In 2019, federal researchers helped to expose the racism of these technologies, showing that Asian and Black people are up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men are — plastering on a layer of racial discrimination that already runs deep in policing.
“The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984. The continued proliferation of surveillance tools like facial recognition technologies in our society is deeply disturbing,” Markey said in a statement. “Biometric data collection poses serious risks of privacy invasion and discrimination, and Americans know they should not have to forgo personal privacy for safety. As we work to make our country more equitable, we cannot ignore the technologies that stand in the way of progress and perpetuate injustice.”
Government use of facial recognition technology is especially insidious because police and prosecutors are allowed to use such tools without even disclosing it in many parts of the U.S. This can often make the use of such technology difficult to defend against in criminal cases, defenders say, while giving police a justification to go after non-white people that the technology has labeled criminals, regardless of whether the designation is accurate.
In recent years, facial recognition and technology like gait recognition have also been used to arrest protesters; during the anti-police George Floyd protests in 2020, six separate federal agencies and police departments across the country used facial recognition thousands of times to identify — and sometimes arrest — protesters.
Advocates against facial recognition technology are warning that such tools could also be used to target trans people and abortion seekers as right-wing lawmakers seek to severely restrict bodily autonomy and eliminate trans people.
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