The Metropolitan King County Council on Wednesday delayed a much-anticipated vote concerning a ban on facial recognition technology, citing a need for additional research on the proposal’s potential to prevent the use of the tool in finding missing children. The County Council plans to revisit and vote on the issue May 19.

The proposal would prohibit the acquisition and use of facial recognition technology and its content by King County government, including by the King County Sheriff’s Office. Exceptions to the ban include unsolicited access to facial recognition technology given to a county department. For instance, an outside law enforcement agency would be permitted to send facial recognition information to the Sheriff’s Office for investigation purposes only if the county department did not request it. The ban would not apply to the use of facial recognition technology by cities within King County, residents, schools or organizations.              

The ordinance also allows people to file legal action against violators. County personnel who violate the ordinance may be suspended or terminated, depending on provisions in collective bargaining agreements.

Civil rights organizations have long criticized the lack of oversight around facial recognition, following extensive research on its potential for bias. A 2019 National Institute of Standards and Technology study on facial recognition algorithms, including from Microsoft and Intel, showed that systems are up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Black and Asian people than white people. Previous research revealed that Amazon’s facial analysis system misclassified the gender of darker-skinned females 31% of the time. Another study showed that facial analysis services by IBM, Amazon, Microsoft and Clarifai mischaracterized the gender identity of transgender people significantly more than cisgender individuals, and was completely inaccurate for nonbinary people.

Sponsored by Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the proposal elicited widespread support from civil and immigrant rights organizations and residents in over 1,000 emails, Kohl-Welles said during Wednesday’s council meeting.

“Government use of facial recognition technology will always be a tool of oppression,” Brianna Auffray of Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Washington chapter — a Muslim civil rights organization — said during the council meeting.

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Misuse of facial recognition technology by government agencies has demonstrated the need to ban it, Auffray added. For instance, a 2019 Washington Post investigation revealed that FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents used facial recognition on millions of Americans’ driver’s licenses without their consent to track immigrants living in the country illegally and suspects.

“If even the fear of such abuse by law enforcement and other government officials causes individuals to avoid attending protests or religious services for fear of being surveilled and targeted, then the technology should not be used at all,” she said.

Jake Parker, from the Security Industry Association, opposed the bill, citing protections included under a 2020 state law, which among other things outlaws government surveillance of people based on their race, immigration status, gender identity, or participation in First Amendment activities.

As written, the county proposal would prevent the King County Sheriff’s Office from using facial recognition technology to find missing children and solve human trafficking cases in the future, he argued. Facial recognition technology is not currently used by the Sheriff’s Office, according to County Council staff.

Law enforcement would still need to comply with the National Child Search Assistance Act, which requires agencies to enter information about missing children into the National Crime Information Center database.  

Artificial intelligence systems have been used to solve human trafficking and missing children cases in the past. Los Angeles-based nonprofit Thorn has used Amazon’s facial and text recognition system to help law enforcement identify missing children in sex ads.

The proposed ordinance comes on the heels of similar facial recognition bans passed by officials in several cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley, California; Portland, Maine; Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis, Boston and New Orleans.

If passed in mid-May, the King County proposal would be the first countywide ban in the nation.