The question of who has the right to use facial recognition technology, and when, has taken a decidedly political turn in recent months. On one side of the debate, civil liberty and privacy groups have urged Congress, cities and states to crack down on government use of facial recognition technology.

Now, a coalition of law enforcement groups and technology companies is responding to a backlash against such tools by calling on lawmakers to provide oversight instead of bans.

On Thursday, 39 groups  sent an open letter to Congress cautioning that “bans would keep this important tool out of the hands of law enforcement officers, making it harder for them to do their jobs efficiently, stay safe, and protect our communities.”

Instead, the groups, including public policy think tank The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the nonprofit National Police Foundation, urged lawmakers to develop guidance, additional training and expanded testing standards for law enforcement use of facial recognition technology.

The A.I. Age | This 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence. The series is funded with the help of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over the coverage.

The coalition highlighted the positive ways police have used facial recognition technology, such as to find missing children and identify people involved in crimes. Such tools will have a bigger role in solving investigations as the technology continues to advance, the coalition said.

One example where facial recognition technology has advanced public safety is Los Angeles-based nonprofit Thorn’s use of Amazon’s facial and text recognition system to identify missing children in sex ads. Thorn CEO Julie Cordua has said the software helps law enforcement identify eight missing children daily in online sex advertisements.


Facial recognition technology helps law enforcement agencies save time by sorting through large volumes of data that they would otherwise analyze manually, said letter signer James Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, in a news release.

The open letter came a day after Amazon announced it is proposing its own facial recognition laws. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told reporters Wednesday the company will encourage lawmakers to adopt the regulations.

Amazon’s announcement and the letter to Congress raised alarm bells for nonprofit Fight for the Future, which in July launched what it called the first national campaign urging a federal ban on all government use of facial recognition technology.

“The companies that stand to profit from the sale of facial recognition should not be writing the laws that govern it,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. “And we should be skeptical of claims from law enforcement agencies that have a long track record of abusing their existing surveillance tools to target marginalized people and crack down on dissent.”

Amid rising concern over police use of facial recognition technology, the Seattle Police Department stopped using its facial-recognition software about a year ago, said spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb.

The department in the past relied on facial-recognition software to compare jail mug-shot images to photos of people suspected of criminal activity. Although Whitcomb was uncertain why the department stopped using the tool, he acknowledged that it involved “using artificial intelligence to help establish probable cause,” and that the matches didn’t provide enough evidence to establish a case.