Washington Inks Facial Recognition Law Backed by Microsoft

In Washington state, governor Jay Inslee just signed a law regulating facial recognition backed by Microsoft that could potentially be a model for other U.S. states. The law allows government agencies to use facial recognition but restricts it from using it for broad surveillance or tracking innocent people. It is more permissive than at least seven U.S. cities that have blocked government use of facial recognition technology due to fears of privacy violations and bias but stricter than states without such laws.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, “passage of the law is a win for Microsoft … which had lobbied in favor of it.” That company and other technology firms see facial recognition as “a multibillion-dollar opportunity as businesses and governments [use it] to identify customers, solve crimes, control access to buildings and more.”

Microsoft has been “openly advocating for facial recognition regulations since 2018,” unlike other tech companies. Amazon, for example, “has called for national standards but hasn’t said much publicly on the facial recognition law in its home state.”

The Washington law states that, “if a government agency wants to use facial recognition, it has to first give public notice, hold at least three community meetings, and publish a report outlining the technology’s potential impact on civil liberties.”

Police need a warrant or court order before using facial recognition for “ongoing surveillance or real-time identification of people.” The law “can’t be used to make significant government decisions without ‘meaningful human review,’ and government employees must be trained on the technology’s limitations.” Any company providing facial recognition to the government also must “allow for independent third-party testing of the system, checking for accuracy or bias.”

The bill’s main sponsor was state senator Joe Nguyen (D-Washington), who is also a Microsoft senior program manager. Among those in the state criticizing the bill are the local ACLU chapter’s technology and liberty project manager Jennifer Lee, who “noted one provision that allows police to use the technology without a warrant if ‘exigent circumstances exist’.”

The Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs also lobbied against it, “saying it placed too many bureaucratic requirements on law enforcement agencies.” That group’s policy director James McMahan pointed out that the law requires police to obtain a court order before “identifying a missing or deceased person.”

According to Quorum Analytics, legislators in California, Idaho, Maryland and South Dakota have come up with bills “mirroring the Washington state bill, word-for-word in some sections,” although those bills have not advanced. Congresswoman Britt Raybould (R-Idaho) said she reached out to Microsoft for a draft of the Washington bill and used it as a starting point for her state’s bill.

The Hawaii chapter of the ACLU reported that a Microsoft lobbyist “was circulating a draft of the Washington bill late last year,” but the “idea of regulation didn’t catch on in Hawaii,” which is considering a “moratorium on government use of facial recognition” there.