Legislation to ban government use of facial recognition hits Senate for the third time

Lawmakers say Americans should not have to "forgo personal privacy for safety."

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Biometric technology may make it easy to unlock your phone, but democratic lawmakers have long cautioned against the use of facial recognition and biometrics by law enforcement. Not only have researchers documented instances of racial and gender bias in such systems, false positives have even led to real instances of wrongful arrest. That's why lawmakers have re-introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Act. This actually marks the third time the bill was introduced to the Senate — despite being introduced in 2020 and 2021, the act was never advanced to a vote.

If passed, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Act would outright ban any use of facial recognition or biometric surveillance by the federal government unless that use is explicitly approved by an Act of Congress. That approval itself would be pretty limited: It would need to define who was allowed to use biometric surveillance, the exact type of biometric surveillance they would be using and the specific purpose it would be used for. Approval would also have the burden of further restrictions, such as adhering to minimum accuracy rates that would hopefully avoid false positives in the rare instances when use of the technology is approved.

The bill also hopes to encourage local and state governments to follow its lead, including a clause that would tie some federal funding for local law enforcement to complying with a "substantially similar" ban on facial recognition and biometrics.

While the bill hasn't had much luck making it to the floor of either chamber of congress, some states and local governments have been banning facial recognition technology on their own. In 2020, Portland Oregon put strict guardrails on the use of facial recognition technology. New York State and Massachusetts have also put restrictions on the use of biometrics. Even the IRS walked back plans to use facial recognition for identity verification purposes.

That sounds encouraging for the re-introduced bill, but that momentum isn't universal: Law enforcement still sees biometrics as a useful tool for investigating crime, and the TSA has been testing systems that compare travelers to the photo on their passport or driver's license.