How face recognition rules in the US got stuck in political gridlock
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How face recognition rules in the US got stuck in political gridlock

I even wrote a story in May 2021 titled “We could see federal regulation on face recognition as early as next week.” News flash: I was wrong. In the years since, the push to regulate the technology seems to have ground to a halt. 

The editor held up his iPhone. “Meanwhile, I’m using it constantly throughout the day,” he said, referring to the face recognition verification system on Apple’s smartphone. 

My story was an attempt to understand what happened by zooming in on one of the hotbeds for debate over police use of face recognition: Massachusetts. Lawmakers in the state are considering a bill that would be a breakthrough on the issue and could set a new tone of compromise for the rest of the country. 

The bill distinguishes between different types of technology, such as live video recognition and retroactive image matching, and sets some strict guardrails when it comes to law enforcement. Under the proposal, only the state police could use face recognition, for example.  

During reporting, I learned that face recognition regulation is being held up in a unique type of political stasis, as Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law who specializes in policing and tech, put it. 

The push to regulate face recognition technology is bipartisan. However, when you get down to details, the picture gets muddier. Face recognition as a tool for law enforcement has become more contentious in recent years, and Republicans tend to align with police groups, at least partly because of growing fears about crime. Those groups often say that new tools like face recognition help increase their capacity during staffing shortages. 

Little surprise, then, that police groups have no interest in regulation. Police lobbies and companies that provide law enforcement with their tech are content to continue using the technology with few guardrails, especially as staffing shortages put pressure on law enforcement to do more with less. Having no restrictions on it suits them fine. 

But civil liberties activists are generally opposed to regulation too. They think that compromising on measures short of a ban decreases the likelihood that a ban will ever be passed. They argue that police are likely to abuse the technology, so giving them any access to it poses risks to the public, and specifically to Black and brown communities that are already overpoliced and surveilled. 

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