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Dems offer ban on Feds using facial, voice recognition

Second time before Congress a charm?

A group of 16 US lawmakers today reintroduced a bill that would ban the nation's federal agencies from using facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies.

The Democrat-pushed proposal also aims to limit state and local governments and law enforcement agencies' use of these surveillance measures by cutting off federal funding unless they enact their own bans on the tech.

In addition to cracking down on facial recognition, the draft Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2023 would also prohibit any federal entity from using voice and gait recognition technologies, which can be used to identify people by the way they walk or run. The bill does not, however, prohibit agencies from using fingerprints or palm prints.

Lawmakers introduced legislation with the same name during the last Congress, but it died in committee.

Under the 2023 proposal, federal dollars could not be spent on biometric surveillance. Specifically, it would make it illegal for any federal agency or official to "acquire, possess, access, or use" any biometric surveillance system or information that's derived from video or audio systems operated by a third-party.

The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984

These bans can only be lifted by an act of Congress. However, such an act has to include some very specific details about which entities are permitted to use the surveillance system and for what purposes. 

Any exemptions would also have to include rules on data retention, control sharing and access limits, and put in place auditing requirements as well as "rigorous protections for due process, privacy, free speech and association, and racial, gender, and religious equity."

"The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984," said Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), who introduced this and last sessions' bills, in a statement.

"Biometric data collection poses serious risks of privacy invasion and discrimination, and Americans know they should not have to forgo personal privacy for safety," he added. "As we work to make our country more equitable, we cannot ignore the technologies that stand in the way of progress and perpetuate injustice."

The legislation comes as public agencies and law enforcement expand their use of AI and facial recognition, despite these technologies being used to wrongfully arrest people of color based on false matches.

House Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a companion bill to the Senate version it in the House. Other co-sponsors include Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Cori Bush (D-MO), Greg Casar (D-TX), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

Dozens of civil and digital rights groups have also endorsed the legislation. This includes Fight for the Future, which has called for an outright ban on law enforcement use of facial recognition.

The coalition has also sounded the alarm on corporations and private entities' use of the technology on their employees and the public.

"Facial recognition has continued to harm vulnerable communities and erode our privacy, making this legislation more important than ever," Caitlin Seeley George, Fight for the Future managing director, said in a statement.

"There have been more cases of misidentification leading to wrongful arrest of Black men and more surveillance of people exercising their right to protest; databases of peoples' most sensitive information have been breached, exposing irreplaceable data to bad actors; and more government agencies, from the IRS to the TSA, have adopted facial recognition to track our every move," she continued. "We cannot afford to wait any longer to put this invasive technology in check, and any lawmaker who claims to care about privacy and justice must prove it by supporting this legislation."

Meanwhile, FBI works on face-recognizing drones

Fight for the Future and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) both supported the facial recognition ban bill in the last Congress. 

"It remains the ACLU's position that in light of the dangers of face recognition technology, lawmakers must halt law enforcement access to it," Nathan Freed Wessler, Deputy Director of ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told The Register.

The ACLU is currently suing the US Department of Justice to force the Feds to hand over more information about how the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency use the technology. Internal records recently revealed in the ongoing court proceedings show that the FBI and Defense Department are developing and testing on Americans facial recognition software that could be used to identify people from drone and street-camera video footage.

"The documents show the government opening a Pandora's box on a terrifying technical capability, which can enable pervasive tracking of anyone or everyone in a way never before possible in a free society," Freed Wessler said.

"Lawmakers need to close the door on government abuse of this technology now, before it is too late." ®

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