By Ryan Tracy 

Washington state adopted a Microsoft Corp.-backed law enshrining the most detailed regulations of facial recognition in the U.S., potentially serving as a model for other states as use of the technology grows.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the law Tuesday allowing government agencies to use facial recognition, with restrictions designed to ensure it isn't deployed for broad surveillance or tracking innocent people.

The law makes Washington's policy stricter than many states that don't have any laws governing the technology, but more permissive than at least seven U.S. municipalities that have blocked government from using it out of concerns about privacy violations and bias.

Passage of the law is a win for Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Wash., near Seattle, and which had lobbied in favor of it. Cloud providers such as Microsoft and other technology firms see a multibillion-dollar opportunity as businesses and governments apply facial recognition to identify customers, solve crimes, control access to buildings and more. Proposed bans on the technology threaten that opportunity.

Other tech companies say they support regulation of facial recognition, but generally haven't been as active as Microsoft in promoting legislation. Seattle-based cloud computing giant Amazon.com Inc. has called for national standards but hasn't said much publicly on the facial recognition law in its home state.

There are signs the Washington model is catching on in other states. Lawmakers in California, Maryland, South Dakota and Idaho introduced bills this year with text mirroring the Washington state bill, word-for-word in some sections, according to Quorum Analytics Inc., a software company that tracks legislation. Those bills haven't advanced.

Microsoft has helped promote the legislation in other states. In Idaho, Republican State Rep. Britt Raybould modeled a facial-recognition proposal on a draft of the Washington bill she received from Microsoft after reaching out to the company, she said in an interview. "It's a starting point," she said of the Idaho bill.

In Hawaii, a lobbyist for Microsoft was circulating a draft of the Washington bill late last year, according to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it received a copy from the lobbyist by email.

A Microsoft spokesman noted the company has been openly advocating for facial recognition regulations since 2018.

"Washington state's new law breaks through what at times has been a polarizing debate," Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a blog post Tuesday. "This balanced approach ensures that facial recognition can be used as a tool to protect the public, but only in ways that respect fundamental rights and serve the public interest."

The idea of regulation didn't catch on in Hawaii. Instead, lawmakers there were considering a moratorium on government use of facial recognition before postponing this year's legislative session amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the new Washington law, if a government agency wants to use facial recognition, it has to first give public notice, hold at least three community meetings, and publish a report outlining the technology's potential impact on civil liberties.

Police could use facial recognition for ongoing surveillance or real-time identification of people but they will need a warrant or court order first.

The law also includes checks on the technology. It can't be used to make significant government decisions without "meaningful human review," and government employees must be trained on the technology's limitations.

A company providing it to the government has to allow for independent third-party testing of the system, checking for accuracy or bias. Washington state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat and the bill's main sponsor, said that provision has national implications because problems identified in his state will have to be fixed elsewhere, too. In addition to being a part-time legislator, Mr. Nguyen works as a senior program manager at Microsoft.

Some in Washington state have criticized the law. Jennifer Lee, technology and liberty project manager for the ACLU's local chapter, says the bill gives the government too much leeway. She noted one provision that allows police to use the technology without a warrant if "exigent circumstances exist."

"We need a temporary ban on face surveillance, not ongoing use that allows beta testing of face surveillance on the most impacted and vulnerable communities," Ms. Lee said.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs also lobbied against the bill, saying it placed too many bureaucratic requirements on law enforcement agencies.

"There is a version of facial recognition regulations that we are okay with," but this law "hinders our ability to keep people safe," said James McMahan, the group's policy director. He pointed to a requirement that police obtain a court order before a common use of facial recognition: Identifying a missing or deceased person.

As he signed the law, Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said it "provides state and local governments a set of guidelines around facial recognition technology while balancing the interests of law-enforcement, the business community and individuals' right to privacy."

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 31, 2020 16:49 ET (20:49 GMT)

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