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Cities Are Weighing The Dangers And Benefits Of Facial Recognition


Another local government has voted to ban facial recognition technology - King County, Wash., which includes Seattle and its suburbs. NPR's Martin Kaste has this update on the national political movement to restrict the technology.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: County council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored the legislation which bars county agencies, including the sheriff's office, from using software that IDs faces that just passed earlier this week.

JEANNE KOHL-WELLES: I'll tell you. Having a 9-0 vote, a unanimous vote, conservative, liberal, whatever - that really was a strong statement.

KASTE: She thinks interest in this issue grew during the George Floyd protests as people worried about how police might use facial recognition to track activists. There's also concern that the tech is less accurate with the faces of people of color, though experts say that's fixable with better software. Still, that doesn't reassure Kohl-Welles.

KOHL-WELLES: Even if this technology were to become perfect, is that something we want? Do we want to be monitored at all levels of our lives?

ASHLEY JOHNSON: Often this legislation is coming from a place of fear and overstating the potential risks while throwing out all the potential benefits.

KASTE: That's Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank funded partly by tech companies. Nationally, she'd like to see a more nuanced approach to this issue.

JOHNSON: Targeted rules and restrictions on the use of that technology that minimize the threat of potential misuse.

KASTE: But right now, privacy groups are more interested in bans. Matt Mahmoudi is with Amnesty International, which has a publicity campaign raising the possibility that the thousands of security cameras in New York could be used, maybe, for citywide facial recognition. The NYPD denies this, but Mahmoudi points to the fact that it took a long, drawn-out legal battle just to get some details about how the police use this tech.

MATT MAHMOUDI: If you're not willing to come forward to us about what particular cases it was used for, how it's being limited, then we're going to try and give folks an idea of how widely spread this could potentially be.

KASTE: But so far, moratorium legislation has not made it very far in New York. The ITIF's Ashley Johnson says bans have succeeded only in a handful of liberal cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Boston. And she says in Congress, there's little momentum for a federal ban or even for the kind of regulatory approach that she'd like to see.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM SONG, "WE HAVE A MAP OF THE PIANO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.