Groups call for suspension of U.S. federal facial recognition as state lawmakers weigh changes

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More than 40 groups have co-signed a letter calling on the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an executive agency, to recommend the federal government suspend its use of surveillance based on facial biometrics.

The coalition includes the Algorithmic Justice League, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Media Alliance, and the Project on Government Oversight. In the letter, they cite the recent New York Times article on Clearview AI’s image-scraping tactics and reported relation with more than 600 law enforcement agencies, and note a growing movement to ban facial recognition technology, as reflected in a growing number of local government restrictions.

They note that NIST testing found false positives are up to 100 times more likely for Asian and African American faces compared to White faces, but write that while they “do not believe that that improved accuracy of facial recognition would justify further deployment, we do believe that the obvious problems with bias and discrimination in the systems that are currently in use is an additional reason to recommend a blanket moratorium.”

The PCLOB committed to investigating the use of facial recognition and other technologies in aviation last year, but the groups state that facial recognition in public spaces is the more pressing issue.

EPIC has previously called for DHS to halt its use of facial recognition, and the groups suggest that the EU’s consideration of a moratorium on facial biometrics in public spaces is an appropriate response.

States consider action

A bill has been proposed in New York’s State Senate to ban police use of facial recognition and some other biometric modalities for surveillance, and to set up a task force to steer the future regulation of biometric technology, Law.com reports.

Police would still be able to use fingerprints and DNA evidence if the bill, introduced by State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), who chairs the State Senate Judiciary Committee, is passed.

“Facial recognition technology threatens to end every New Yorker’s ability to walk down the street anonymously,” Hoylman said in a statement. He also specifically expressed concern over NYPD’s alleged use of Clearview AI.

Outside counsel for Clearview, Tor Ekeland, said the company welcomes dialogue on the responsible use of facial recognition, and that it only sells to law enforcement agencies. Ekeland is concerned about the broad wording of the bill, according to Law.com.

Representatives of the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union said their groups support for the bill. An NYPD spokesperson stated that not using facial biometric would be negligent on the part of the department.

“The NYPD identifies suspects by comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos and this technology helps bring justice to victims,” the department’s statement reads. “A facial recognition match is solely a lead — no one has ever been arrested solely on the basis of a computer match, no matter how compelling.”

The task force the bill would create reserves space for several agencies, including state and New York City police.

Efforts in Washington State to pass privacy legislation covering facial recognition are also moving forward, with participation from Microsoft, according to GeekWire.

A bill previously introduced by State Senator Reuven Carlyle and similar to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) passed the Senate, only to stall in the State House last year, and was backed by Microsoft. A second bill focused on facial recognition deployment in public spaces is sponsored by State Senator Joe Nguyen, a full-time Microsoft employee, and Microsoft Corporate VP for Global Privacy and Regulatory Affairs and Chief Privacy Officer Julie Brill recently published a blog post supporting both bills.

A separate bill has been proposed granting legal ownership of biometric data to the data subject, and another bill has been proposed which limits the use of AI for profiling state residents.

Maine state legislature, meanwhile, is considering a bill which would ease the sharing of biometric data, including facial images, fingerprints, and iris scans from driver’s licenses by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the Maine Beacon reports.

The state’s ACLU branch is concerned that the change in motor vehicle laws will make it easier for federal and state law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition in investigations.

“This bill would enshrine in statute the ability of state and federal law enforcement agencies to use workers in the Secretary of State’s office to access high-definition photos of ordinary Mainers,” said Maine ACLU Policy Counsel Michael Kebede in a state Transportation Committee hearing, as reported by the Beacon.

The Secretary of State’s office says that so far it only uses facial recognition, and the law would bar the DMV from granting access to its images to an outside entity.

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