A new Senate bill would ban corporations from using facial recognition without people’s explicit consent

A new bill introduced in the Senate Tuesday would heavily curtail the use of facial recognition technology by individuals and private companies, and would ban them from selling biometric data, including pictures of people identified by facial recognition.

The National Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2020, cosponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would make it illegal for corporations to use facial recognition to identify people unless they obtain those people’s consent and are carrying out facial recognition for a “valid business purpose.”

“Do we really want to live under constant surveillance by unaccountable corporations? I don’t. We cannot allow Orwellian facial recognition technology to continue to violate the privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Sanders said in a statement to Business Insider.

If passed, the bill would leave little room for controversial facial recognition companies like Clearview AI to operate outside of government contracts. Clearview AI aggregates pictures of people from social media sites to build a searchable facial recognition database, which lets its clients identify people by uploading a photo of them – a practice that has drawn fierce backlash from privacy advocates.

“We can’t let companies scoop up or profit from people’s faces and fingerprints without their consent,” Merkley said in a statement. “We have to fight against a ‘big brother’ surveillance state that eradicates our privacy and our control of our own information, be it a threat from the government or from private companies.”

The bill’s introduction comes after a Reuters investigation revealed that Rite Aid had been using facial recognition cameras in hundreds of US stores without notifying customers. Rite Aid discontinued the practice following Reuters’ reporting last month.

A similar law has been passed in Illinois that bans the use of private facial recognition without permission. Facebook already had to pay $550 million to Illinois residents who filed a class action lawsuit related to the law, and similar lawsuits have been filed against Clearview AI, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google in the state.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in the House last month seeks to ban the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies.

Privacy advocates – many of whom have been pushing for an outright ban of facial recognition technology — heralded the Senate bill as a step in the right direction.

“Right now in most states in the US, it would be totally legal for a big box store to set up surveillance cameras, scan the faces of everyone entering the store and compare them to a public mugshot database,” Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer told Business Insider. “If this legislation passes, that sort of creepy corporate surveillance would be impossible.”