Government Use of Facial Recognition Banned in King County (Wash.)
Washington’s largest county, which comprises the greater Seattle area, is home to facial recognition software makers Amazon and Microsoft.
SEATTLE — King County, Washington, on Tuesday voted to ban the use of facial recognition, thereby becoming the first county in the United States to ban government use of the technology.
Similar bans have been enacted in more than a dozen cities, including Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Jackson Miss., Boston, among others. Vermont has also banned the technology.
The nine-member King County Metropolitan Council passed the new measure unanimously, 9-0. The ban will prevent all county agencies, including the sheriff’s office, from accessing or using facial recognition technology; however, no county agency is currently using it, Sgt. Tim Meyer of the King County Sheriff’s Office told statescoop.com.
The ban does not affect the use of facial recognition by agencies in Seattle, King County’s largest city. Private citizens can still use the technology, the bill reads, but people can sue the county if they find out that facial recognition was used to identify them.
“The use of facial recognition technology by government agencies poses distinct threats to our residents, including potential misidentification, bias, and the erosion of our civil liberties,” council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the legislation’s primary sponsor, said in a statement. “The use or misuse of these technologies has potentially devastating consequences which the new ordinance will help to prevent.”
The ban was supported by advocacy organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has helped facilitate similar bans across the country, often with similarly-worded legislation that cites the privacy and racial bias concerns associated with facial recognition.
A 2019 National Institute of Standards and Technology study on facial recognition algorithms, including from Microsoft and Intel, showed that systems are up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Black and Asian people than white people. Previous research revealed that Amazon’s facial analysis system, Amazon Rekognition, misclassified the gender of darker-skinned females 31% of the time.
Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a tech-industry think tank supported by facial recognition vendors like Amazon, told statescoop.com he has not observed large numbers of local governments adopting similar bans. However, he said, the “certain blue counties, blue cities” that have banned the technology “reflects the polarization” around facial recognition.
“Partially because of the fact that the rationale that they’re using for the ban — which is that the technology is fundamentally flawed — simply isn’t true,” he said.
Castro said ITIF disputed the conclusions that advocacy groups reached when reviewing the NIST research because it allowed as many as 200 different algorithms to be tested, but noted that the top-performing platforms were quite accurate.
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