Dueling Washington State facial recognition bills spark regulation debate

Microsoft is lobbying against a bill with bipartisan support in the Washington State legislature that would ban the use of facial recognition by state and local government until a set of conditions are met, Wired reports.

The bill was drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), according to Wired, and conditions for unlocking state and local government use of the technology include a report by the state attorney general showing equal accuracy when matching people of different skin colors, genders, and ages.

Microsoft recently offered its support for a data protection bill similar to GDPR in the state, which addresses facial recognition specifically, but is less restrictive. The ACLU opposes that bill, because public notice will not curb the use of facial recognition, and authorities will use its “emergency” provision as a loophole, according to the director of ACLU Washington’s technology and liberty project, Shankar Narayan.

“Microsoft’s bill has us heading to a world where face surveillance is ubiquitous and the norm,” Narayan says.

The ACLU’s bill is supported by groups representing immigrants, Muslims, and criminal defense attorneys. A Microsoft attorney told a committee hearing earlier this month that positive government uses of the technology would be blocked, which was supported by a representative of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Microsoft has advocated for government regulation of facial biometrics, but company President Brad Smith declined to support a moratorium on law enforcement use in response to a question from MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

State Senator Reuven Carlyle, the primary sponsor of the data protection bill, says the state attorney general is responsible for overseeing issues like the emergency provision, and that a moratorium would stifle innovation and represent an overreach of authority by government.

“I don’t believe in the premise of government deciding that a commercial application can or can’t be used,” he told Wired.

Carlyle also says Amazon, which recently proposed guidelines for responsible use of facial recognition technology, has suggested minor adjustments to the part of his bill relating specifically to facial recognition. Police body-camera maker Axon, in contrast, opposed the data protection bill, telling lawmakers that it could block its new technology.

University of Washington DataLab Codirector Jevin West says the duelling bills promote a healthy conversation about the issue, and each bill has strengths and weaknesses.

Both bills will face committee processes in the state legislature in the coming weeks.

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