Legislation Introduced to Prohibit Irresponsible Government Use of Facial Recognition Technology

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) today introduced legislation to protect the privacy of consumers from rapidly advancing facial recognition technology and data collection practices that heighten the risk of over-surveillance and over-policing, especially in communities that are already disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

Amid growing concerns of inappropriate use of facial recognition technology, the Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act would safeguard Americans’ right to privacy by instituting a moratorium on all federal governmental use of the technology until Congress passes legislation outlining specific uses for the data.

“Technology is evolving and advancing every day, and often these advancements bring improvements to our quality of life, our economy, and even our public safety,” said Merkley. “But Congress has an important responsibility to make sure that the government does not abuse emerging technology in ways that violate Americans’ right to privacy or that disproportionately and wrongfully single out Americans of color.

“Before this unregulated market becomes too big to tame, Congress needs to put a moratorium on federal use of facial recognition while we develop responsible and ethical guidelines for its use going forward.”

“Facial recognition is a powerful and rapidly evolving technology, but without proper oversight it poses a serious risk to privacy and safety,” said Booker. “Facial recognition technology has been demonstrated to be often inaccurate–misidentifying and disproportionately targeting women and people of color. To protect consumer privacy and safety, Congress must work to set the rules of the road for responsible uses of this technology by the federal government.”

In addition to halting federal use of facial recognition technology, this legislation would prohibit the use of federal funds to be used by state or local governments for investing in or purchasing the technology. The Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act would create a commission to consider and create recommendations, to be delivered to Congress within 18 months, to ensure that any future federal use of facial recognition technology is limited to responsible uses that promote public safety and protect Americans’ privacy.  The bill includes limited exceptions for law enforcement use of facial recognition pursuant to warrants issued by a court.

Facial recognition technology works by employing biometric software to analyze a photo or video in order to create a map of an individual’s face, which can then be used to identify that person. In recent years, the technology has sparked intense criticism internationally—as the Chinese government uses facial recognition to track members of a persecuted Muslim ethnic minority—and within America, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement use databases of driver’s license photos to search for individuals suspected of engaging in criminal activity.

But the use of facial recognition technology is likely to have grave consequences. A landmark federal study released in December 2019 found that Asian- and African-American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition than White men, raising serious alarm over the implications of the use of the technology in law enforcement. 

A number of cities across the country, from California to Massachusetts, have banned city agencies from using facial recognition. Congress has yet to pass any federal regulations or guidelines governing its use.

The full bill text of the Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act is available here.