An international wave of anti-surveillance sentiment pushed back against the proliferation of face recognition systems.

What happened: Activist and watchdog groups in the U.S. and Europe, alarmed by the technology’s potential to infringe on civil liberties, spurred legislation restricting its use. Their efforts built momentum toward national bans on public and private uses of the technology.

Driving the story: Several U.S. cities passed anti-face recognition laws as the federal government mulled the issues. The European Union is working on its own restrictions.

  • In May, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban face recognition by police and other government officials, followed by the Boston, MA suburb of Somerville. In the coming months, San Francisco’s neighbors Oakland and Berkeley passed similar laws. These laws were spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, which aims to build momentum for national legislation.
  • In Washington, members of the U.S. Congress grilled the Department of Homeland Security over the agency’s plan to use the technology at airports and the border. Legislators in both the Senate and House of Representatives have introduced at least a dozen bills — many with bipartisan support — seeking to restrict uses of face recognition to suppress liberties, deny housing, and generate profit, among other things.
  • European watchdogs pushed to classify face images as biometric data subject to existing privacy regulations. The European Commission is considering legislation targeting “indiscriminate use” of face recognition by private organizations and public agencies. Nonetheless, France in October readied a national identification program based on the technology.
  • China’s use of face recognition prompted opposition in the U.S., where federal trade authorities banned exports of U.S. technology to several Chinese companies.

Behind the news: In 2016, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration published face-recognition guidelines asking companies to be transparent, practice good data management, and allow the public some control over sharing of face data with third parties. Although major vendors of the technology are members of the NTIA, it’s not clear whether they follow these guidelines.

Where things stand: In June, Amazon Web Service CEO’s Andy Jassy told Recode, “I wish [Congress would] hurry up. . . . . Otherwise, you’ll have 50 different laws in 50 different states.” He may as well have spoken for the tech industry as a whole: Without legal limits, companies are left guessing how far they can push the technology before they violate public trust — risking blowback if they step over the line.

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