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King County Levy Could Allow Law Enforcement To Study Facial Recognition, Sparking Criticism

Paula Wissel
Law enforcement could research facial recognition if levy renewal passes.

Free speech advocates are criticizing a levy that would renew funding for King County's fingerprint identification program, saying the measure would open the door for law enforcement officials to use facial recognition technology in investigations. 

The ballot measure includes wording that could allow law enforcement to study facial recognition and possibly recommend it for future use.

Agencies across the country, including the Seattle Police Department, already use the technology. But the ACLU said it worries its continued proliferation could be used to stifle dissenting opinions and erode free speech rights. 

The civil liberties group has called for a moratorium on the technology, including a cheap version sold on Amazon. That version, Rekognition, misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals, 11 of whom were people of color. Law enforcement in Oregon and California have used this version, but it's unclear whether any agencies in Washington have done so. 

"Facial recognition is the hot new tool of the moment," said Shankar Narayan, the technology and liberty project manager with the civil liberty group's state branch. "But we're not seeing any evidence whatsoever of the tool being used to keep people safer or even an articulation of the problem facial recognition would solve."

Officials with the region's Automated Fingerprint Identification System would have to notify county council if they intend to study facial recognition. Carol Gillespie, an AFIS program manager, said they would also ask the ACLU for input if they pursue that policy to ensure appropriate use and transparency. 

A possible use of the technology could include pairing security footage against a mugshot database — a version similar to how the Seattle Police Department uses facial recognition.

The county's fingerprint system currently has facial recognition capabilities, but no plans or funding currently exist to implement it. If the levy fails, upgrades to the system would be put on hold.