Washington State Legalizes Restricted Use of Facial Recognition Technology

A bill permitting the use of facial recognition technology with certain restrictions has been signed into law in Washington State.

Governor Jay Inslee signed the new bill on March 31 after it was passed by the Washington State House of Representatives on March 12 by a vote of 27 to 21 in favor. The new law will come into effect next year. 

The new legislation will limit the "unconstrained use of facial recognition services by state and local government agencies" because it "poses broad social ramifications that should be considered and addressed."

Under the new law, state and local government agencies "may use facial recognition services to locate or identify missing persons, and identify deceased persons, including missing or murdered indigenous women, subjects of Amber alerts and silver alerts, and other possible crime victims, for the purposes of keeping the public safe."

Before developing, procuring, or using facial recognition technology, a state or local government agency must file a notice of intent with a legislative authority and produce an accountability report.

The new legislation has won the support of Microsoft president Bill Smith, who praised it in a recent blog post

"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,” wrote Smith.

Washington's state agencies are not permitted to use facial recognition based on a person’s “religious, political or social views or activities,” or “participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event,” or “actual or perceived race, ethnicity, citizenship, place of origin, immigration status, age, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or other characteristic protected by law.”

Use of facial recognition technology in the United States is not currently governed by any federal rules. Washington is the first state to pass legislation to allow the constrained use of facial recognition technology, while elsewhere in America, some have moved to ban it. 

In 2019, San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, California, and the Boston, Massachusetts, suburbs of Somerville and Brookline all moved to ban the use of the new technology.

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