King County officials are considering a law that would prevent law enforcement from gobbling up pictures of your face, storing it in a giant database, and using facial recognition software to identify suspects — in part because facial recognition technology is faulty and racist, but also because council members find the whole thing super-duper creepy.
“I’m getting more and more concerned about infringements on my privacy,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles when reached for comment. “Going to a store, and there are cameras, and they have tapes of our faces and who knows what they use it for.”
To be honest: Yes, I do find it a little gross how QFC makes me watch video of myself packing my groceries at the self-checkout, especially since it's unclear to me if that footage is stored somewhere. Thank God uses of surveillance are relatively limited, and you don’t have to worry about too many … oh, wait, what’s that you’re saying, Councilmember?
“I get really frustrated when I read The Stranger online, or something else, and am constantly interrupted with ads,” Kohl-Welles went on. “And when I found out that those ads are based on tracking me and what I look at … I think it’s kind of spooky.”
Ah. Hm. Well … you got us there. At least The Stranger’s not showing up at anyone’s house with a gun?
Proposed Ordinance 2021-0091 would prohibit “the acquisition and use of facial recognition technology by County administrative offices and executive departments, including the department of public safety,” and it prompted a spirited discussion at Wednesday evening’s Committee of the Whole, which sounds like a cult gathering but is really what King County council meetings are called.
The use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is a fraught issue right now — in one particularly egregious misuse of the tech, Detroit police arrested an innocent man because computers told them to. He’s now suing, with help from the ACLU — and he's far from the only Black man targeted by a combination of bad tech and bad cops.
Facial recognition technology is known to have an inbuilt bias when it comes to people with relatively darker skin, especially women. Nonbinary and trans people are also frequently misidentified by facial recognition systems.
(And on top of that, it doesn't even work well for white people, either. Speaking as a white bearded nerd with glasses, every single time I log onto Facebook, I'm confronted by hundreds of notifications that I've been tagged in a random users' screengrabs of tweets by other-white-bearded-nerd Aaron Rupar.)
Jonathan Fowler, Deputy Chief of Staff for Councilmember Kohl-Welles, points out another concern: biometric data can be stored long-term without the people’s knowledge, and no database is completely 100% hacker-proof.
Government agencies gobbling up facial data is different from monitoring citizens the old-fashioned way — say, by maintaining drivers license or arrest records — because there would generally be no way for citizens to know that they’re being tracked, Kohl-Welles says.
“With facial recognition you could be in a crowd, you could be in a lobby, you could be anywhere,” she says, “and what happens with the cultivating and selling of that image to other groups?”
Kohl-Welles’s concerns were shared by Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “I’ve been in China,” she said at yesterday’s hearing, causing everyone watching to involuntarily clench their entire bodies in anticipation of how the sentence might continue, “and been very surprised by how much they knew about where I was and what I did. … I don’t want that to be in my community. It was very uncomfortable for me to see.”
The committee was set to vote on the ordinance yesterday, but after a bit of back-and-forth over the specific wording of the bill, it was decided that they would postpone the vote until the next meeting, likely to be on May 19.
Though some cities have enacted similar bans, King County would be the first county in the nation to issue such a prohibition.
Ultimately, council members agreed, they want to take extreme care to get this legislation right.
“It’s not going to suddenly be implemented while we work out concerns,” said Councilmember Claudia Balducci.