Lawmakers seek ‘time out’ on facial recognition tech

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came out aggressively against the widespread deployment of facial recognition technology, signaling they plan to draft legislation that would curb, or even halt, its implementation during a hearing on Wednesday.

“It seems to me it’s time for a time out,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said during the hearing. “[This technology] is virtually unregulated — but I think that frankly needs to change.”

The intensifying federal scrutiny comes amid a national debate over the technology, which has attracted the criticism of privacy and civil rights activists and calls for new restrictions.

Local governments are taking the lead: Some cities are already taking action, led by San Francisco’s unprecedented decision last week to ban its government agencies, including law enforcement, from using facial recognition technology. Similar proposals are being weighed in Oakland, Calif., and Sommerville, Mass., and more are expected to emerge as activists turn up the heat on a battle they say has resonated better with average Americans more than other fights over privacy.

“People from all backgrounds understand this issue like no other surveillance issue I’ve worked on,” Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said on a call with reporters last week. “It resonates with people and they understand it.”

Broad Bipartisan agreement: At the House Oversight hearing, a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers expressed nearly identical concerns over the potential for facial recognition technology to violate Americans’ constitutional rights. And they agreed across the aisle on the “urgent” need for more oversight and better regulations, with multiple lawmakers calling for an all-out moratorium on the technology until the concerns over its potential civil liberties and civil rights violations can be resolved.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) called the issue a “sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together.”