Washington Governor Jay Inslee has officially signed the state’s new facial recognition bill into law. The state legislature passed the new regulations on March 12, and they will formally go into effect in 2021.
In the meantime, one of the state’s most notable commercial residents is already celebrating the Governor’s decision. Microsoft argues that the landmark bill is the first major attempt to regulate facial recognition in a way that will allow its use while protecting civil liberties, and that the legislation is necessary to ensure the ethical and responsible use of the technology.
So what makes the new bill so significant? While municipalities like San Francisco have issued blanket bans, the Washington bill is a bit more nuanced. It allows public agencies to use facial recognition, but forces them to adhere to certain privacy, transparency, and accountability requirements if they wish to do so.
To that end, any state or local organization that wants to use facial recognition must first notify the public about their plans, and explain exactly what they intend to do with the technology. The technology supplier must also submit its platform for independent testing, either with an API or through some other means. The testing is supposed to guard against the racial and gender biases that have been observed in many facial recognition algorithms.
Any reports of bias must be disclosed to the public to create an additional layer of accountability. By the same token, the state cannot use facial recognition to automate its decision making processes for individual citizens. If a facial recognition match would lead to a denial of service, the result must first be submitted for human review to verify the person’s identity and ensure they are not the victim of a false positive outcome.
Finally, the new law includes several measures to ensure people’s privacy and civil liberties. To protect the public from mass surveillance, agencies cannot use real-time identification software in surveillance tech without a court order or a warrant, or in exigent circumstances. Authorities are similarly barred from using facial recognition to record people engaged in lawful activities (such as protests), and from using it based on protected characteristics like race, immigration status, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Agencies must have a coherent “use and data management policy” that covers cybersecurity and privacy, amongst other things.
The Washington bill would seem to answer Microsoft President Brad Smith’s calls for greater regulation, while still allowing facial recognition development to continue. With that in mind, Smith believes that the new law can serve as a template for other governments that want to take a more balanced approach to facial recognition.
April 2, 2020 – by Eric Weiss