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King County Council bans use of facial recognition technology

A man watches as a visitor tries out a facial recognition display at a booth for Chinese tech firm Ping'an Technology at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing on April 26, 2018.
Mark Schiefelbein
The Associated Press file

The King County Council passed a law earlier this week banning the use of facial recognition technology by county agencies. Backers say the county is now the first in the United States to have such a ban, though the county follows a handful of cities around the country.

The county’s vote was 9-0.

Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles was the bill’s main sponsor. 

"We can be leaders in showing that we can proceed cautiously with developing technologies that may cause harm and, in fact, have caused harm already to individuals in different parts of the country," she said.

Facial recognition software can identify someone in photos, in videos or in person and can, for instance, help law enforcement officers identify a suspect. But critics have raised concerns about the data being stored and misused, and studies have shown it’s more likely to misidentify people of color.

Jennifer Lee is with the ACLU of Washington. She spoke Tuesday in favor of the law.

“Facial recognition technology is a powerful, privacy-invasive and racially biased technology that gives the government unprecedented power to automatically identify, locate and track people based on images of their faces,” she said.

The ban applies only to county agencies, not to cities or businesses within King County nor to Sea-Tac Airport. An airport spokesman says U.S. border officials already use the technology on arriving and departing international travelers.

Sheriff Sgt. Tim Meyer of the King County Sheriff's Office said the department currently does not use any technology that would be affected by the ban and doesn’t expect any changes from the new law.

“The Sheriff’s Office operations will not be hindered by the proposed legislation,” Meyer said. “This legislation reflects the values of the communities we serve.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.