Bipartisan bill proposes oversight for commercial facial recognition

On Thursday, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz and Missouri Senator Roy Blunt introduced a bill designed to offer legislative oversight for commercial applications of facial recognition technology. Known as the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act, the bill would obligate companies to first obtain explicit user consent before collecting any facial recognition data as well as limiting companies from freely sharing facial recognition data with third parties.

“Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their data is being collected and used, including data collected through facial recognition technology,” Senator Blunt said of the bill. “That’s why we need guardrails to ensure that, as this technology continues to develop, it is implemented responsibly.”

Microsoft endorsed the bipartisan bill, which dovetails with some of the company’s own ideas about how facial recognition tech might be regulated. “We believe it’s important for governments in 2019 to start adopting laws to regulate this technology,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in December. “The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle.”

As The Hill points out, the proposed legislation does not include some of the same provisions around the use of facial recognition by law enforcement that Microsoft has mentioned previously, including the requirement of a court order to limit “ongoing government surveillance of specified individuals.” The bill instead focuses on risks specific to the commercial side of facial recognition tech. Other facial recognition legislation has been making the rounds at a state level in Microsoft’s home state this year with buy-in from the company.

“Our faces are our identities. They’re personal. So the responsibility is on companies to ask people for their permission before they track and analyze their faces,” Senator Schatz said of the proposed legislation. “Our bill makes sure that people are given the information and – more importantly – the control over how their data is shared with companies using facial recognition technology.”

Whether the bill goes anywhere or not, proposed legislation does provide insight into the regulatory trends bouncing around Congress at any given moment. As Microsoft’s involvement makes clear, facial recognition is another area of intense interest in which companies may seek to shape legislation before it becomes law.