More legislation to restrict biometric facial recognition introduced as protesters scan faces
A coincidence, perhaps? In Washington, D.C. last week, on the same day Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) bipartisan bill, The Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act of 2019 – which would require federal law enforcement to obtain a court order before using facial recognition technology to conduct targeted ongoing public surveillance – was introduced, teams of activists from Fight for the Future were deployed around the capital to scan the faces of thousands of individuals for a project they claimed was meant “to demonstrate just how invasive facial recognition technology is.”
As the restrictive biometrics legislation was being introduced Thursday, activists, using Rekognition, a commercially available facial recognition software, scoured the streets of Washington, DC, eventually claiming they’d captured the images of nearly 14,000 faces, including an untold number of legislators the activist group said they cross-referenced with a database to see who could be identified. While some lawmakers apparently were identified using this facial recognition matching technology, so, too, was Roy Orbison, the iconic American singer-songwriter of “Pretty Woman.” The only problem is; he’s been dead since 1988.
But never mind. Fight for the Future said in a statement that “facial recognition technology [still] threatens basic rights and safety.” Presumably even if you’re dead. “It’s spreading quickly within law enforcement, and allows officers to search databases without warrants—or even reasonable suspicion that you’ve done anything wrong. There has been significant reporting on the ways that facial recognition algorithms exhibit systemic racial bias, misidentifying people with darker skin at higher rates.”
Nevertheless, the activist group insisted that the technology kinks and all, still “enables automated and ubiquitous monitoring of an entire population, and it is nearly impossible to avoid. If we don’t stop it from spreading, it will be used not to keep us safe, but to control and oppress us—just as it is already being used in authoritarian states.”
The group said, “(w)e’re calling on Congress to ban government use of facial recognition technology, and to get their attention, we’re scanning Congress to show them exactly how invasive facial recognition is.”
“This should probably be illegal,” Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer said. “But, until Congress takes action to ban facial recognition surveillance, it’s terrifyingly easy for anyone –– a government agent, a corporation, or just a creepy stalker –– to conduct biometric monitoring and violate basic rights at a massive scale. We did this to make a point. And we’re going to delete the data that we collect. Someone else could use the same technology to do unimaginable harm. We need an immediate ban on law enforcement and government use of face surveillance, and should urgently and severely limit its use for private and commercial purposes.”
The group also wasn’t satisfied with Coons and Lee’s bill, saying in a post about the demonstration that the legislation doesn’t go far enough. The group said it “contains gaping loopholes that authorize government and law enforcement to deploy facial recognition surveillance in all kinds of abusive ways.”
Coons’s office, meanwhile, extolled the virtue of his and Lee’s bill. In a statement, his office said: “The use of facial recognition technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement to protect and ensure public safety; however, if used improperly, this technology can quickly become invasive and could violate the privacy of individual Americans. The Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act will help to implement important safeguards to protect the American public from inappropriate government surveillance.”
“Right now,” Coons said in his own statement, “there is a lack of uniformity when it comes to how, when, and where the federal government deploys facial recognition technology,” emphasizing he’s “proud to introduce legislation with Senator Lee that would set clear rules around federal use of the technology by requiring the government to obtain a probable cause warrant if and when it wants to specifically target and track an American. This bipartisan bill strikes the right balance by making sure law enforcement has the tools necessary to keep us safe while also protecting fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights.”
“Facial recognition technology can be a powerful tool for law enforcement officials,” Lee added. “But its very power also makes it ripe for abuse. That is why American citizens deserve protection from facial recognition abuse. This bill accomplishes that by requiring federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before conducting ongoing surveillance of a target.”
Fred Humphries, corporate vice president of U.S. Government Affairs at Microsoft quickly said in a statement that, “We support the bipartisan leadership of Senators Coons and Lee to introduce meaningful reform of law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology. The bill provides clarity for law enforcement to be transparent about its use of facial recognition technology, both for human review when facial recognition is in use and testing for accuracy.”
Humphries added that “the bill also ensures that law enforcement will seek a warrant before it can use this technology for ongoing surveillance, except in certain emergency circumstances. We’re grateful for the Senators’ leadership and are encouraged to see introduction of a new legal framework.”
“Microsoft is committed to working with all stakeholders as the legislation advances in Congress,” he said.
Speaking at a Microsoft’s Build developer’s conference two years ago, company CEO Satya Nadella said, “I do believe it’s up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true.”
“Building trust in technology is crucial,” he continued, noting that, “It starts with us taking accountability for the algorithms we make, the experiences we create, and ensuring there is more trust in technology with each day.”
Also endorsing Coons and Lee’s bill was the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank for science and technology policy.
ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro said in a statement that “(t)he Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act is a welcome addition to the debate about how to properly balance public safety and privacy for Americans. This legislation would establish appropriate safeguards for facial recognition by establishing a warrant requirement for law enforcement to track the movement of individuals. It would also expand and improve federal testing of facial recognition systems to ensure they are accurate and reflect real-world conditions.”
“These types of policies are necessary and appropriate to address reasonable concerns by the public about how law enforcement might use facial recognition technology in the future and ensure the government uses it appropriately,” Castro said. “At the same time, this legislation correctly recognizes that facial recognition is a valuable investigatory tool by law enforcement and provides a welcome alternative to bans and moratoriums on this technology. We look forward to working with Congress as it moves forward with this legislation.”
ITIF recently testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about facial recognition and civil liberties.
Meanwhile, and ironically as the Hill was in biometric apoplectics, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the global travel and tourism private sector, released a new survey showing that a whopping 80 percent of Americans are willing to share biometric data if it improves their travel experience boarding either a domestic or international flight.
WTTC President and CEO Gloria Guevara said: “According to our survey, more than 80 percent of travelers would use their faces to effectively replace their IDs, their boarding passes, and even their passports. From booking to destination city, biometric technology will transform the way we travel – creating a safe and seamless experience.”
The association’s key findings include:
· 81 percent of Americans who travel internationally and 79 percent who travel domestically are willing to share biometric data in order to speed up their traveler journey;
· Eight in 10 US travelers said that they are willing to provide a photo to organizations that might require seeing a passport or photo ID in advance of travelling; and
· 25 to 34-year olds are both among the largest travelling group and most willing to share biometric data (87 percent).
Coons and Lee’s Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act would:
· Require federal law enforcement to obtain a warrant based upon a showing of a probable cause of criminal activity in order to utilize facial recognition technology for the purpose of ongoing public surveillance of an individual;
· Limit the warrant’s allowance of ongoing surveillance to a maximum of 30 days and require the use of the facial recognition technology to be conducted in such a way as to minimize the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of information regarding individuals outside the warrant’s purview;
· Permit law enforcement to use facial recognition technology for ongoing surveillance without a court order in exigent circumstances; and
· Require the judge issuing or denying the warrant application to report the outcome of the warrant application to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts which must catalogue the data and submit a summarized report to the Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate and the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives.
Their bill though is just one more on top of a pile of similar legislation that’s going nowhere.
As Biometric Update reported, so far in the 116th Congress this year, 69 bills have been introduced in both chambers which would regulate and/or ban the use of certain biometric technologies. Democrats introduced more than 40 of the bills, while Republicans introduced less than half that many. And much of the legislation deals with homeland security and immigration matters security authorities and experts have been saying for some time now “must be addressed.”
The last bill introduced would ban the use of facial recognition in public housing funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Called ‘The No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act,’ it was introduced in the House last Friday by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a Democratic presidential candidate. But it’s just another beginning to collect dust piece of legislation among a string of legislation introduced in both the House and Senate by lawmakers that would either ban or regulate the use of biometrics in one form or another by federal agencies.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have stated they believe there needs to be restraints, at least temporarily, on the expansion of the government’s deployment of biometric technologies, especially facial recognition, which some see as an intrusion on privacy rights, but a growing number of seasoned politicos in DC are beginning to say what others believe but won’t themselves express – largely because to do so, at this time, would be a partisan no, no.. And that is this slew of legislation that would ban, restrict, or otherwise limit or regulate in one form or another biometric technology that on the one hand is vital for security, but on the other hand raises legitimate privacy and other concerns, maybe has a lot more to do with nothing less than archetypical campaign season grandstanding.
And as previously reported, with the increasingly polarized political climate that’s engulfed Washington, DC, there’s little glimmer of hope that any of this legislation – no matter how important some of it is for one reason or another – is going to see its way to the President’s desk between now and November 2020. That is unless something miraculous happens.