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US Senators propose to temporarily restrict government use of facial recognition systems without a warrant

facial recognition

A Bill in the US has proposed to temporarily restrict the use of facial recognition technology by federal agencies, government employees, and law enforcement without a warrant, until a Congressional Commission can act to recommend guidelines and place limits on use of the technology.

The Bill also allows citizens to file a civil action lawsuit if they are subjected to the technology by a government official without a warrant, and mandates that no federal funds may be used by a State or unit of local government to invest in facial recognition software, purchase facial recognition technology services, or acquire images for use in facial recognition technology systems. This comes after a handful of cities in the USA have banned the use of such systems, including San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, Berkley, and Somerville.

Called the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence Act, the Bill has been drafted by Senators Jeff Merkley and Cory Booker, and proposes the moratorium because it “is critical that facial recognition not be used to suppress First Amendment related activities, violate privacy, or otherwise adversely impact individuals’ civil rights and civil liberties”. The Bill, lays down a detailed action plan of regulating the use of facial recognition technology by the government, including setting up a Commission for creating the guidelines on the use of the technology, and how Congress would implement those guidelines.

Facial recognition negatively affects women, people of colour, immigrants: According to the Bill, facial recognition has disproportionately impacted people of colour, activists, immigrants, and has had a history of being inaccurate, particularly for women. The technology has been used at protests and rallies, which can have a chilling effect on free speech, the Bill said. However, in a statement to Engadget, advocacy group American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that while the Bill is a good first step, it’s exceptions that allow the police to use facial recognition technology with a warrant “fails to fully account for the realities of this mass surveillance tool”.

Commission to create guidelines on use of facial recognition by the government: It proposed to create a Congressional Commission which would consider and create guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology by government officials. The guidelines should be around the fact that facial recognition doesn’t “create a constant state of surveillance,” produce biased or inaccurate results, disproportionately impact a racial, ethnic, national origin group, or other protected class of individuals, the Bill said. Here’s how the proposed Commission looks like:

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  • It will have have 13 members, and 1 member appointed by the President, shall be the chairperson of the Commission
  • 3 members to be appointed by by the Majority Leader of the Senate
  • 3 members by the Minority Leader of the Senate
  • 3 members to be appointed by Speaker of House of Representatives
  • 3 members by Minority Leader of House of Representatives

At least 7 members appointed to the Commission should be representatives of “Communities most impacted negatively by the use of facial recognition technology,” and the rest should be law enforcement and immigration enforcement officials and privacy and technology experts, the Bill proposed.

Commission will submit a report to Congress: If the Bill were to become and Act, the Commission will have to submit a report to Congress within 18 months, highlighting the guidelines required to the created to regulate the use of facial recognition technology, along with recommendations of how the guidelines would be implemented. Once the report is submitted to Congress, it will, within 90 days, have to prepare legislation to implement guidelines proposed by the Committee, and introduce the same in the House of Representatives.

EU backtracks on facial recognition use moratorium: This development comes after the European Union is reportedly planning to backtrack on its initial plan of placing a five year moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology. According to the Financial Times, EU will leave it up to member states if they want to ban the technology in their respective countries.

Meanwhile in India: The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is inviting bids to create a national level Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS), which is expected to be the foundation for “a national level searchable platform of facial images”. The department is planning to deploy such a system when India doesn’t have a data protection law.

  • Earlier this year, we reported that the Indian Railways is in the process of installing Video Surveillance Systems (VSS), equipped with a facial recognition system, in 983 railway stations across the country. In fact, South Western Railway is planning to implement this system at its railway stations from February 2020.
  • The Telangana government piloted a facial recognition app in its civic elections on January 22, and claimed that it could address the issue of voter impersonation. The All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), had urged the state’s election commissioner to withdraw the use of such systems, to no avail.
  • Certain police forces in India are already using facial recognition systems to scan people at large gatherings, with the most recent instance of its deployment being at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Delhi, in December 2019.
  • Police in Telangana have been asking for “suspects’” fingerprints and facial data to match against a database of criminals, although, as we had earlier reported, these cases often don’t involve an executive order, or explicit consent from the person whose biometric data is being demanded.

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