Washington State restricts facial recognition use with passage of Microsoft-backed law

Washington State restricts facial recognition use with passage of Microsoft-backed law

The Microsoft-backed bill setting detailed limitations on the use of biometric facial recognition in Washington State has been signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee, The Wall Street Journal reports, charting a middle course between the hands-off approach currently taken by most states and the restrictions set by a number of municipalities across the country.

Senate Bill 6280 was approved in a 53-43 House vote with 2 excused, and passed the Senate in a 27-21 vote with 1 excused, both on March 12.

A section on studying facial recognition technology and potential abuses of the technology was vetoed by Inslee, though he acknowledged its importance, as it is not provided for in the budget.

Inslee says the law “provides state and local governments a set of guidelines around facial recognition technology while balancing the interests of law-enforcement, the business community and individuals’ right to privacy.”

Government agencies are now required to give notice, hold at least three meetings with the community and publish a civil liberties impact assessment before deploying facial recognition. Police can use the technology, either forensically or in real-time deployments, but only with a warrant or court order, unless there are “exigent circumstances.” Training and meaningful human review are also required for the technology’s use.

Companies providing the technology must allow for independent third-party testing for accuracy and bias, which sponsor and Microsoft employee Senator Joe Nguyen says will enable problems identified in the state to be fixed for all Americans.

In a blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith claimed that “the law will accelerate market forces to address the risk of bias in facial recognition technology,” and that it will advance transparency and accountability. Smith touts the testing requirements and protections of civil liberties built into the law, and calls it “the definition of progress,” and “an early and important model.”

No right of private action is included in the bill. The ACLU and Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs both opposed the bill, for essentially opposite reasons.

The Journal reports that other states are considering similar action, with bills introduced so far this year in California, Maryland, South Dakota and Idaho including text that mirrors that of the Washington bill. A lobbyist for Microsoft had also been distributing a draft of the Washington bill to lawmakers in Hawaii late last year, but the island state had turned instead towards consideration of a moratorium on government use of facial recognition, before shuttering its legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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