Washington State County Becomes First in U.S. to Ban Facial Recognition Software Over Racism Concerns

King County in Washington is the first U.S. county to ban government use of facial recognition software over concerns about racism and demographic biases.

A "groundbreaking" proposal for the ban was approved Tuesday by the King County Council to protect the county's 2.3 million citizens' freedoms from government surveillance, since studies revealed "facial recognition software is often far more likely to misidentify Black or Asian faces, especially Black women," the council said in a statement.

"The use of this technology is invasive, intrusive, racially biased and full of risks to fundamental civil liberties," said King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove. "I am proud to sponsor this ban, which is supported by local community groups, public defenders, immigrants' rights advocates, racial justice organizations, workers' rights groups, privacy advocates and technologists."

King County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the U.S. where millions live within and around Seattle, the county seat.

The legislation to ban the use of facial recognition software was sponsored by King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles and was approved unanimously by a 9-0 vote.

"The use of facial recognition technology by government agencies poses distinct threats to our residents, including potential misidentification, bias, and the erosion of our civil liberties," Kohl-Welles said "The use or misuse of these technologies has potentially devastating consequences which the new ordinance will help to prevent."

Kohl-Welles told Newsweek that the council is a nonpartisan legislative body made up of both Democrats and Republicans from different backgrounds who all agreed on the ban. At first, she did not know what kind of reaction she would get about it, she said.

The King County Sheriff's office will also be prohibited from using the software. The sheriff's office had never used the technology before and previously supported the ban, a spokesperson told NBC affiliate KING 5.

Also, the sheriff's office has not requested its use and did not oppose the legislation, with one of its deputies saying they were fine with it on Tuesday, Kohl-Welles said.

The only exception for the technology's use is for complying with the National Child Search Assistance Act.

Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) praised King County's ban on facial recognition software.

Jennifer Lee from ACLU Washington said the ban was a "huge win" for residents of the county and "an important step forward in the effort to stop government use of this harmful and racist technology."

She called for a federal ban on government use of facial recognition and said the technology is "often inaccurate" as it "disproportionately misidentifies people of color and heightens the risk of surveillance and deadly encounters with law enforcement in already marginalized and over-policed communities."

Brianna Auffray, a legal and policy manager at CAIR Washington, said the rest of the state and the nation should follow the actions of King County.

"Facial recognition is consistently used to target Muslims around the world, as well as to quell our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion and association," she said.

Regarding misidentification, Kohl-Welles said, "I just find it very disturbing that something like a technology software that may be used to identify people through scanning their faces and surveilling people in crowds and so forth could lead to individuals being arrested, being detained and held in jail."

She mentioned a study by National Institute of Standards and Technology on face recognition software that found false positives are up to 100 times more likely for Asian and Black faces, compared with white faces.

"Our county government leads with racial inequity as a driving force," she said, noting how the county government uses equity as a lens in developing laws and policies.

"I think this ban is an ordinance that puts equity into action," Kohl-Welles added.

King County Executive Dow Constantine will sign the ban legislation into law, according to The Seattle Times.

Kohl-Welles said she expects the signing by the end of this week or early next week. She added that the law could be reversed if a councilmember introduces legislation to repeal it.

"So it's not something that is there forever, but it could be," she said.

Some cities—such as Boston, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon—have similar bans on the use of facial recognition technology.

"The bottom line for me is that facial recognition systems technology would just make everything worse and give governments unprecedented surveillance power. And I'm not someone who is prone to hysteria or conspiracy theorists at all," Kohl-Welles said.

This story was updated at 3:54 p.m. June 2 to include additional comments from King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Video Surveillance Camera
A video surveillance camera hangs from the side of a building on May 14, 2019, in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images