Comments on King County facial recognition ban

From the May 5 King County Council "Committee of the Whole" meeting.

I’m Jon Pincus, a technologist, entrepreneur, and long-time Bellevue resident. Following up on my comments from two weeks ago, I’d like to highlight a key difference between the proposed King County Ordinance 2021-0091 and the statewide facial recognition legislation SB 6280 that comes into effect on July 1.

Facial recognition is like plutonium: so toxic that its use needs to be restricted to a small number of highly specialized and tightly controlled situations.  That’s exactly what Ordinance 2021-0091 does.

SB 6280 takes a very different approach.  It allows virtually all uses of the technology, but introduces transparency and testing requirements.  For example, it requires government agencies to

  • document how they’ll ensure that everybody’s sprayed with equal amounts of plutonium.
  • test out plutonium on the communities most likely to be harmed, to see how toxic it is to them
  • and produce reports on what happens when people are sprayed with plutonium.

Unsurprisingly, the communities most at risk from facial recognition strongly opposed the statewide legislation, instead favoring a moratorium or ban.

The legislature wasn’t ready to go that far, but they did remove a clause in the original version of the bill that would have prohibited stronger local legislation.  In other words, the legislature specifically allowed for exactly the kind of ordinance King County is currently considering.  Unsurprisingly, the communities most at risk from facial recognition support this ordinance.

As a software engineer, I strongly urge you not to get too focused on whether or not algorithms are improving.   Cherry-picked quotes and numbers typically make the technology look better than it really is, for example by ignoring real-world complexities like racialized policing and inexperienced users with limited training.

Besides, the issues with facial recognition go far beyond today’s bias and accuracy problems.   As Timnit Gebru of the Gender Shades project points out in A Case for Banning Facial Recognition, even completely accurate facial recognition can still be used in ways that are “detrimental to certain groups of people.”  Evan Selinger and Woodrow Herzog suggest accurate facial recognition might be even more dangerous “because those in power will find it irresistible and they’ll want to use it more often.”

Please protect King County residents and visitors, and vote to ban government agencies from spraying plutonium.

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