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Bringing order to biometrics purchases and use by police to be a tough fight

Bringing order to biometrics purchases and use by police to be a tough fight

New federal legislation that would sic science on biometrics in policing faces a nearly vertical climb even as a majority of the nation — including most Republicans — say law enforcement reform must occur immediately.

Introduced June 18, House resolution 7252 would seek to make federally funded research a bigger part, not just of policing, but of the management of police work. It is called the Promoting Fair and Effective Policing Through Research Act.

The bill’s summary specifies “research to examine law enforcement policies and practices, including the causes, consequences, and mitigation of excessive use of force.”

The resolution is among multiple national legislative proposals that have been introduced in June aimed at reforming how police departments operate. In the Democrat-controlled House, the emphasis has been on reducing police violence, increasing accountability and fostering trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

H.R. 7252 would budget $14 million, split between three executive-branch departments, every year from 2021 to 2026 for the work. It has been assigned to three committees, Science, Space and Technology; Homeland Security; and Judiciary.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would create a standardized test program that would help biometrics vendors prove out their biometric identification products. The program would “benchmark the accuracy, efficacy, and fairness” of systems. NIST already runs the Face Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) and performs other tests to inform government customers of the technology.

Legislation sponsors want vendors, communities and government to know what success means when using technology on “demographic variations.” Among the technologies named in the bill are de-identification and facial recognition.

The battle to make H.R. 7252 law likely will be intense. First, it has to compete with other new social-justice legislation in the House of Representatives for attention. Many related proposals will be made among the states, and several cities are either taking steps to change police tactics and strategies or offering support for such measures.

If it survives that step, it must win over a majority of U.S. senators, most of whom are Republican. The leader of senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is up for re-election, and faces an energized Democratic Party in his state. McConnell cannot tack left for votes, which leaves an aggressive law-and-order position his only option.

The White House has signaled its resistance to any measures that do not bolster police safety and authority.

The biometrics industry, which is growing as fast as are the capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning, may not sit quietly if it believes public spending will be cut, though it could also welcome increased public funds for independent testing.

The 2020 federal budget for the Homeland Security’s biometric identity management office called for a 6 percent increase, to $269.6 million. That department also heads several other subgroups, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which use biometrics. The Department of Justice invests in the technology as well.

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