Police set up surveillance cameras around downtown Charlottesville ahead of planned protests in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia lawmakers appear poised to repeal a blanket ban on local police use of facial recognition technology, which was among the most stringent restrictions in the country when it passed last year.
The law, which only went into effect on July 1, passed with wide bi-partisan support. But now some lawmakers say they only viewed it as a temporary step.
“From my perspective that was a timeout so we could evaluate that practice and try to get it into a good format, and I believe this bill does exactly that,” said Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, who argued the technology can be an important crime fighting tool with appropriate safeguards.
The legislation would allow police to tap into databases when they have “reasonable suspicion” their target committed a crime or is planning to commit a crime. The legislation would also allow police to use the technology to help identify crime victims or witnesses and dead people, among other circumstances.
While the restrictions would allow the technology in pretty much any investigation, the restrictions would have the effect of barring dragnet-type searches, in which officers indiscriminately query people — a point Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, emphasized when he presented similar legislation in the Senate.
“What the bill does not do is allow broad surveillance or monitoring,” he said. “You have to have a specific case you’re working on or someone in a hospital bed you’re trying to identify.”
Both House and Senate versions of the legislation also explicitly bar police from using any facial recognition matches as probable cause to obtain a search or arrest warrant. The legislation requires any software used by police be certified 98 percent accurate by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supporters of the technology say should address criticisms that the technology is less accurate when used to identify people with darker skin pigmentation.
Lawmakers passed the existing ban on the technology last year following reporting by The Virginian-Pilot that found police officers had begun using the technology with little oversight and no public disclosure.
The newspaper reported that one of the primary purveyors of the technology, Clearview AI, was emailing officers directly offering them free trials. The company relies on images harvested from social media and other public sources.
The company retained six lobbyists in Virginia this session with the goal of “making it legal for law-enforcement agencies and other public safety entities to use” the technology, according to public records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Just as the ban on police use of the technology passed with widespread support last year, so far the move to repeal it has been similarly popular. No one testified against the legislation in either the House or Senate and it has advanced through the committee process on bi-partisan votes.
The measure has not yet gone before the full House or Senate for a vote.
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