Ethical Issues With Facial Recognition Addressed by State Legislature


Washington State may impose restrictions on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology.

House Bill 1654 would require state and local government agencies to have a warrant if they are monitoring public footage, and states that agencies cannot use facial recognition to analyze footage obtained from a police-worn body camera. Any facial recognition data obtained by agencies could not be used as evidence in court.

It also requires the Legislature to conduct a report on the accuracy of facial recognition systems with variation in race, skin tone, ethnicity, gender, and age.

Representative Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, is the bill’s prime sponsor alongside seven other Democrats and one Republican. She said that official use of facial recognition needs regulation due to inaccuracies in the technology. She said that her photos on social media usually get tagged with somebody else’s name who looks similar to her.

“She happens to be one of my friends but she does happen to have curly hair or permed hair like I do, similar age and there she is,” she said. “I do experience that inaccuracy and I can only imagine how bad it could become if it’s a person who is being rounded up or arrested or somehow involved in law enforcement.”

According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amazon’s Rekognition technology is already being sold to law enforcement. In October, The Washington Post reported that Amazon also met with ICE officials to pitch its facial recognition system.

Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon all have developed their own facial recognition software.

Last year, a study by MIT and Microsoft researchers found that facial recognition technologies decreased in identification accuracy if the face was female or dark-skinned.

Jevan Hutson, president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Washington School of Law, warned about the importance of having ethical conversations about the technology’s ability to discriminate against communities which have historically been under more surveillance by law enforcement.

“Face surveillance is a far more powerful technology with the potential to amplify existing biases,” Hutson said in a public hearing..

In a blog post earlier this month, an Amazon spokesperson defended its Rekognition technology, argued that facial recognition is a valuable tool for removing bias when compared to manual human processes, and said that its inaccuracies were due to incorrect use of the program.

Opponents of the bill argued that since the Department of Licensing needs facial recognition technology to be in compliance with federal Real ID Act requirements, the department would need to be exempted under the bill.

On Friday the bill was passed out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation.   

“I just think that it’s important that we recognize that the use of facial recognition systems impacts all Washingtonians,” said Representative Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “We want to particularly focus that area of course that have great concern but but it’s important that we recognize that…all Washingtonians are concerned.”