Washington State signs facial recognition curbs into law; critics want ban

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday signed the first U.S. state law that sharply curbs law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, while civil rights activists said the measure did not go far enough to protect marginalized groups.

Facial recognition software can identify individuals in photos and videos based on a database of known subjects. The technology has won over businesses and police in the last few years despite objections that it invades people’s privacy and exacerbates racial and gender biases.

Washington’s law requires government agencies to obtain a warrant to run facial recognition scans, except in case of emergency. The software used must have a way to be independently tested for “accuracy and unfair performance differences” across skin tone, gender, age and other characteristics, according to the legislation, which applies to all public agencies in the state.

The law also requires training and public reporting around usage of facial recognition.

Previously, several cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have banned government use of facial recognition, and California is among states that have barred facial recognition from being used in tandem with police body cameras.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said it was disappointed and called for more discussion on whether facial recognition “should be used at all.” It has called for a temporary moratorium on facial recognition usage.

Microsoft Corp, based in Redmond, Washington, sells facial recognition software and backed the new law. State Senator Joe Nguyen, who is a senior program manager at Microsoft, had sponsored the legislation.

Microsoft has said bans go too far and that real-world usage is needed to determine how best to regulate facial recognition. Brad Smith, the company’s president, said the new law established civil liberty safeguards while preserving the public safety benefits, as when governments use the technology to find missing people.

“This balanced approach ensures that facial recognition can be used as a tool to protect the public, but only in ways that respect fundamental rights and serve the public interest,” Smith said in a draft blog post shared with Reuters.

Other tech companies have taken a different stance. Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google parent Alphabet Inc, said he was open to a “waiting period” before facial recognition is deployed.

Inslee vetoed part of the legislation that called for a task force to study the technology further and provide additional recommendations. He said there was no funding for the task force and suggested lawmakers instead solicit advice from local universities.

Reporting by Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin; Editing by Dan Grebler and David Gregorio