Changes to King County proposal to fund biometrics causes controversy

Voters in King County, Washington are voting on a proposition to renew a property tax as part of the primary ballot, with the proceeds of the tax earmarked for funding 40 local police agencies in the county, including the Sherriff’s office, the Federal Way Mirror reports. The proposition has become highly contentious, however, after an amendment was added to the renewal proposition to allow the funds to be used for research on new biometric technology and the development of pilot projects.

The levy was originally introduced in 1986 to fund the county’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), and requires periodic renewal. The amendment, which was introduced by King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, could be used to fund facial recognition systems, according to critics, though the amendment would also require approval by council and consultation with privacy and civil liberties groups before any new pilots. Dembowski emphasized the importance of including privacy protections in the proposed adoption process.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht called a press conference in response to calls from concerned homeowners. She pointed out that the levy has been reduced from four to three cents per $1,000 in property value, and urged voters to pass the measure and continue funding the AFIS system. The system is important to law enforcement, Johanknecht says, and that fingerprints would otherwise have to be sent to a state lab that is already overburdened, slowing down response times.

Shankar Narayan of the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter says that the amended language of the proposal is too broad, and that the county has not shown a need for new biometric technology. “If it really is facial recognition that you’re trying to invest in, then the voters should be asked of that,” he says.

He also expressed concern with what would happen if a new sheriff is elected, and potential problems arising from sharing information with state and federal authorities.

“This is really about the big picture,” Narayan added. “This is about how these surveillance infrastructures get built piece by piece without public transparency.”

Carol Gillespie, who is the program manager for the AFIS, noted that the system is due to be updated, and AFIS vendors are offering ABIS products with multimodal capabilities, but they would not be used without council approval.

The Sheriff’s office and local ACLU chapter have spoken about the proposal, and Dembowski contacted the Narayan’s ACLU office while working on the amendment, but Narayan says he was unable to respond due to a staffing shortage, according to Crosscut.

The ACLU has been engaged in a public argument with Amazon over the propriety of the company marketing its Rekognition facial biometric service to law enforcement agencies.

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