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Markey Signals Bill to Ban Government Use of Facial Recognition

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) (Image credit: U.S. Senate)

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will join with some of his colleagues to introduce legislation to ban government use of facial recognition and other biometric technology.

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act is in response to reports that law enforcement has been teaming up with tech companies, as well as some of those companies’ pledges to call their own moratorium on supplying such technology to law enforcement.

They are concerned about inaccuracy and bias, calling that a grave threat not only to privacy, but to the physical safety of Black Americans and other minorities. “As we work to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society, we can’t ignore the harms that these technologies present," Markey said.

Joining him in introducing the ban are Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Prammila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

The legislation, which is endorsed by the ACLU, Color of Change, Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy & Technology, and New America’s Open Technology Institute, among others, would:

1.) “Place a prohibition on the use of facial recognition technology by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;

2.) “Place a prohibition on the use of other biometric technologies, including voice recognition, gate recognition, and recognition of other immutable physical characteristics, by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;

3.) “Condition federal grant funding to state and local entities, including law enforcement, on those entities enacting their own moratoria on the use of facial recognition and biometric technology;

4.) “Prohibit the use of federal dollars for biometric surveillance systems;

5.) “Prohibit the use of information collected via biometric technology in violation of the Act in any judicial proceedings;

6.) “Include a private right of action for individuals whose biometric data is used in violation of the Act and allows for enforcement by state Attorneys General; and

7.) “Allow states and localities to enact their own laws regarding the use of facial recognition and biometric technologies."

Two weeks ago, Markey, a longtime advocate for consumer privacy, said Amazon's decision to suspend supplying facial recognition (branded "Rekognition") tech to police was good as far as it went, but suggests that was not nearly far enough, likening surveillance to the damaging government systems protesters are currently working to dismantle. 

"Facial recognition is the perfect technology for tyranny. It automates discriminatory policing and exacerbates existing injustices in our deeply racist criminal justice system," Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer said. "This legislation effectively bans law enforcement use of facial recognition in the United States. That’s exactly what we need right now. 

“We give this bill our full endorsement," she said. "Congress should pass this bill as soon as possible."

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.