SALT LAKE CITY — Federal police agencies would have to obtain a warrant to use facial recognition technology for surveillance under a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Coons, D-Del., say facial recognition has a place in law enforcement, but can quickly become invasive and violate people’s privacy if used improperly.
“Facial recognition technology can be a powerful tool for law enforcement officials,” Lee said. “But its very power also makes it ripe for abuse. That is why American citizens deserve protection from facial recognition abuse.”
The Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act requires federal law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to use the technology for ongoing surveillance of a person. It also limits surveillance to 30 days and sets rules to minimize the collection of data on people who fall outside the scope of the warrant.
Coons said there is a lack of uniformity to how, when and where the federal government uses facial recognition.
“This bipartisan bill strikes the right balance by making sure law enforcement has the tools necessary to keep us safe while also protecting fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights,” he said.
Fred Humphries, Microsoft corporate vice president of U.S. government affairs, said the bill provides clarity for law enforcement to be transparent about its use of the technology, both for human review when facial recognition is in use and testing for accuracy.
Facial recognition technology creates a “template” of a person’s facial image and compares it to existing photos, which could be found in driver’s license databases, government identification records, mugshots and social media.
Lee has raised concerns about facial recognition technology invading people’s privacy on several fronts.
In March, he and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., called for a pause after Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection documents revealed the expansion of facial recognition technology to all international travelers traveling through the top 20 U.S. airports by 2021.
The documents made it clear that American citizens would be swept up in the practice as the border patrol admitted there is not enough time to separate U.S. citizens from non-U.S. citizens, according to the senators. The documents also showed that airlines do not face limits on how they can use travelers’ facial data after being tasked by the border patrol to retain the equipment necessary to implement facial recognition screening.
Lee and Markey had previously accused Homeland Security of using unauthorized facial scans and potentially violating federal law, and called for a halt to the expansion of the airport program.
In July, Lee quizzed FBI Director Christopher Wray in a Senate committee meeting on the use of facial scans, citing news reports that the agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been using state driver’s license databases, including Utah’s, to do facial recognition searches without consent.
Lee noted that the FBI has its own databases that contain photos.
“But unlike other databases that it maintains, most of the photos in any states’ driver’s license database are not going to be of people who have been convicted of crimes,” he said.
A Pew Research Center survey released in September found that 56% of Americans trust law enforcement to use the technology responsibly. A similar share, 59%, say it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition scans to assess security threats in public places.
Utah officials say they do not allow the FBI or ICE to comb through the state’s databases to conduct facial recognition searches. The state, however, does conduct searches upon request for federal and local police that are tied to criminal investigations.
Since the Statewide Information and Analysis Center started keeping track in 2015, Utah had run 3,284 searches for federal agencies, 357 for out-of-state police departments and 263 for local law enforcement. As of September, the state’s driver license division had used the system to detect 1,056 cases of fraud among people applying for licenses.
Some state lawmakers have raised questions about police agencies doing facial recognition searches on Utahns’ driver’s license photos. The Legislature could take up the issue when it convenes in January.