OLYMPIA — Washington state senators Wednesday approved a bill that would begin regulating the use of facial-recognition programs by local and state governments.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, Senate Bill 6280 is one of a series of legislative proposals this year to counter technology that is evolving fast, regulated little and all but opaque to most residents.
Facial recognition has been a particular concern, with worries that its use by law enforcement comes before the programs even can accurately identify people.
A landmark federal study released in December found that facial-recognition programs were misidentifying people of color more often than white people; women more often than men; and children and elderly people more often than people in other age ranges.
The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
Among other things, SB 6280 prohibits state and local government agencies from using facial recognition for ongoing surveillance in most instances.
That surveillance would be allowed in support of law enforcement with a search warrant or an agency director’s determination under some conditions, such as an emergency that involves risk of death.
The legislation requires that any decisions made based on facial-recognition programs that have a legal impact be reviewed by an agency worker with training on facial recognition who has authority to change the decision, according to a legislative analysis. Examples of such decisions include the granting or denying of financial loans, housing, health care or employment opportunities.
SB 6280 requires programs that have a legal impact to be tested by governments before being deployed. It sets training standards for government employees handling personal data gleaned from facial recognition.
The bill also requires governments to issue annual reports disclosing how they use facial recognition and to hold community meetings on the reports.
But Nguyen’s proposal — like another bill championed by Senate lawmakers to regulate how companies use personal data and facial recognition — could face resistance in the House.
There, some lawmakers have instead wanted to temporarily stop governments from using facial recognition.
Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, sponsored one such proposal. House Bill 2856 would prohibit facial-recognition programs by local and state government until July 1, 2023.
The bill passed a committee vote earlier this month but did not get a vote of the full House by a key deadline Wednesday.
Entenman described the debate over facial recognition as a question of fundamental privacy rights, and “about having a technology that is not ready to be used in the public sphere.”
Additionally, “As an African American woman, I am of course concerned about the fact that law enforcement and others believe that this technology will make people safer,” she said.
Rep. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick said he would like to see something between Nguyen’s proposal and Entenman’s bill.
Boehnke — who worked on digital-data issues while in the U.S. Army — suggested a shorter moratorium of about a year so lawmakers to assess how facial recognition is being used by governments.
“These are critical issues,” said Boehnke, assistant ranking Republican on the House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee. “And we need to start seeing what’s going on.”
In a speech before the Senate passed his bill 30 to 18, Nguyen called it necessary to “implement strong moral guardrails” for facial-recognition programs.
“Right now, facial-recognition technology is being used unchecked and with little recourse,” Nguyen said. “And tech companies generally don’t care about the moral values of the products they are creating.”