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US federal lawmakers reintroduce biometric surveillance moratorium

biometric identification facial recognition

A proposed U.S. moratorium on the use of biometrics for surveillance by federal agencies has been revived by Democrats in Congress, with legislation that failed to advance in the previous session introduced to answer a call for from civil rights and privacy groups.

The ‘Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act’ is co-sponsored by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), along with Representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13).

The announcement links to an article about Clearview AI and a report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, and cites the worst-performing algorithm in NIST’s testing of racial bias in facial recognition.

The Act would prohibit federal entities from using facial recognition, which would presumably block several Department of Homeland Security programs including CBP’s Simplified Arrival and Biometric Exit programs, as well as immigration checks, and FBI forensic investigation systems, if those applications are considered surveillance. It would also do the same for voice, gait, and other physical biometrics, with the bans reversible only by Congress.

Federal grant funding would be made conditional on potential recipients falling into step on the moratoria, and federal money would be prohibited from use by state or local agencies to procure biometric surveillance systems. The use of biometric data collected in violation of the Act could not be used in court, and in the case of violations, both a private right of action and enforcement by state Attorneys General are provided.

“Facial recognition technology has been plagued with far too many problems for any government to use it responsibly. This technology has been misused against peaceful protestors, sent innocent people to jail and has proven to misidentify Black Americans and people with dark skin at elevated rates. I am proud to join Senators Markey and Merkley in introducing legislation to put facial recognition tech on ice until there is proof it can be used effectively and safely,” said Senator Wyden in the announcement.

Congresswoman Tlaib referred to the wrongful arrests of two Black men who were misidentified by facial recognition systems in her district.

“Any lawmaker who fails to support this moratorium legislation, to at least put a pause on the spread of this technology while we have a conversation about its impact on our society, is actively supporting the erosion of our basic human and constitutional rights,” said Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer. Greer also argues that biometric technology is more like nuclear weapons than alcohol or cigarettes.

Joy Buolamwini is listed along with dozens of organizations, including the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, that have endorsed the legislation.

This post was updated at 7:07pm Eastern on June 15, 2021 to further reflect the emphasis on surveillance in the legislation.

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