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Virginia lawmakers unanimously approve bill that bans facial recognition technology

Posted at 8:02 AM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 10:22:26-04

RICHMOND, Va.-- In February, Virginia lawmakers from both parties unanimously approved a bill that would restrict the use of facial recognition technology.

Right now, law enforcement agencies across the state can use this technology without the knowledge of local or state leaders. Your images could be in these systems without you even knowing it.

Under the bill, any law enforcement agency using facial recognition technology must stop, and they can only get approval to use it if they seek special permission from the legislature beginning July 1.

Democratic Delegate Lashrecse Aird was one of the bill's lead sponsors. She said she drafted the bill after an investigation found some gang detectives in Norfolk were using a controversial facial recognition app called Clearview AI to identify suspects in criminal investigations without city leaders knowing.

The AP reports that Clearview AI's app uses a database of more than three billion images that the company says it scraped from Facebook, Venmo, YouTube and millions of other websites, according to a New York Times investigation.

Recent ACLU studies have found higher error rates for facial recognition software used to identify people of color, women and the elderly.

“I am in support of technology that will save lives, technology that will make policing, effective and efficient," Aird noted. "But the fact of the matter is, the data is very clear that databases at this time are not allowing that work, to be fair, not allowing that work to be efficient.”

The bill initially received little to no push-back from police, but is now being criticized by some law enforcement officials, who say it's too broad and hasn't been thoroughly vetted. John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff's Association sent CBS 6 a statement reading:

“HB 2031 freezes the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies. Earlier versions of the bill allowed for a local option, allowing public input for its use, which was acceptable because facial recognition is a valuable tool in certain applications. The technology can be safety used without infringing on constitutional rights while providing a tool for law enforcement agencies. I’m hopeful the Governor will consider the legitimate uses and allow for further consideration to accommodate all concerned parties.”

Earlier forms of the bill would have allowed police departments to seek special approval from local municipal leaders, but Republican Senator Ryan McDougle proposed amendments to make the legislation much more restrictive.

"Prior to this legislation, there was no real way to know whether or not law enforcement would be using facial recognition technology in our communities, which gives me some pause because this technology is controversial in nature," said Aird. "And it has shown to be biased for identifying people of higher pigmentation."

Aird said the bill will be discussed during the General Assembly’s special session in April because there needs to be an amendment that will allow airports and the federal agencies within them to continue using this facial recognition technology.