Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill on Tuesday (March 31) establishing specific rules – backed by Microsoft – governing facial recognition software, according to a blog by Bill Smith, president of Microsoft.
“This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology,” Smith said in the post.
Washington’s new law aims to institute transparency and accountability for facial recognition, as well as mandates to safeguard basic civil liberties. Municipal and state authorities can use facial recognition for missing persons, in Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts, and for public safety.
“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 noted.
The bill was passed on March 12 by a vote of 27-21 in favor. It outlines the need for regulation and oversight because “unconstrained use of facial recognition services by state and local government agencies poses broad social ramifications that should be considered and addressed.”
Microsoft said in 2018 that it had discouraged a commercial push to develop a standard for facial recognition technology. “In our view, this required a legal floor of responsibility, governed by the rule of law,” Smith said.
The issue has since been debated worldwide, with some countries outright banning the technology and others sidelining its use. Washington is the first state to pass legislation to allow facial recognition, but with constraints.
The new law, which will take effect in 2021, can only be used by local and state government agencies if the company providing the facial recognition technology uses an application programming interface (API). Aside from an API, another technology can be used if it can enable “legitimate, independent and reasonable tests” for “accuracy and unfair performance differences across distinct subpopulations.”
The new law also requires government agencies to file regular reports regarding the use of facial recognition technology. Law enforcement needs to obtain a warrant before using it in investigations, unless something is considered an emergency. The bill also establishes a task force to scrutinize how, when and why the technology is used.
Many states don’t have any laws regulating the use of facial recognition technology. San Francisco is one of seven municipalities that have blocked the government’s use of the technology, citing privacy and bias. Other cities following suit include Berkeley and Oakland, California and Sommerville, Massachusetts.
Tech companies want to get ahead of the law when it comes to facial recognition, seeking to restrict its use but also ensuring that the most severe regulations don’t come to pass.