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Congresswomen to Propose Ban on Facial Recognition in Public Housing

Yvette Clarke, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley plan to propose a federal law banning the technology this week, citing concerns over privacy and bias.

by Madeleine Gregory
Jul 23 2019, 5:03pm

Screengrab: Fight for the Future

Three progressive congresswomen plan to introduce legislation later this week that would ban biometrics and facial recognition from public housing, a source familiar with the legislation told Motherboard.

Congresswomen Yvette Clarke of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are planning to introduce the “No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act” this week. This comes after a wave of privacy concerns over facial recognition, as cities from San Francisco to Somerville, Massachusetts have banned public agencies from using the technology. News of the House bill was first reported by CNET.

“Surveillance technology is often used to track and control vulnerable communities, particularly communities of color,” the congresswomen wrote in a letter asking for co-sponsors, which was verified by Motherboard. “The installation of biometric technologies on public housing properties poses an acute risk to those already on the margins.”

Currently, if a landlord wants to install biometric technology, there’s little to stop them. In May, the landlord of a rent-stabilized building in Brooklyn tried to install facial recognition, which tenants pushed back against. They expressed concern over the emerging technology’s privacy implications and potential biases.

Besides concerns over privacy, facial recognition technology is often inaccurate. Facial recognition has proved to be far less effective at correctly identifying women, people of color, and trans people than white males.

A source familiar with the legislation told Motherboard that all three congresswomen had heard from people in their districts concerned about this new technology, motivating them to propose this legislation.

The legislation will not only ban the use of facial recognition technology in public housing, but it also force the Department of Housing and Urban Development to do more research on the potential impact on tenants and the purpose of installing these emerging technologies, the letter from the congresswomen said.

“Facial recognition surveillance should be banned everywhere, but keeping it out of public housing is an excellent start,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital civil rights group that has been pushing for total facial recognition bans, said in a statement. "If public housing units become a panopticon of automated face scanning and monitoring, it will mean more people in prison, more police abuse, and more families torn apart."