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King County considers ban on facial recognition technology

The bill would ban the use of facial recognition technology within King County departments, including the sheriff’s office.

SEATTLE — The King County Council is considering banning the use of facial recognition technology within county departments, including the sheriff’s office.

"The technology is advancing rapidly, and it can be improved, but do we still want to be surveilled to that extent by [the] government?” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is sponsoring the bill that would ban the tools.

The King County Sheriff’s Office does not use facial recognition technology and supports the measure, a spokesperson said.

Some law enforcement agencies collect images of faces from surveillance cameras and other sources. They use software to compare those pictures with a vast database of other faces to potentially identify a suspect.

The technology can help solve crimes, but critics worry it has far greater costs.

"People who are Black, Asian, Latino, people with darker skins, especially females, are more likely to be misidentified by this technology,” said Kohl-Welles.

A long list of nonprofits, including the ACLU, sent a letter to the council urging them to pass the ban.

"Facial recognition is a privacy-invasive and racially biased technology that gives government the power to automatically identify, locate and track people based on images of their faces,” the groups wrote.

The proposed ban would only impact King County offices and not cities within the county.

The Seattle Police Department does not use facial recognition tools, a spokesperson said Wednesday.

Last year, the ACLU of Washington called on the city to ban the technology amid concerns SPD was using it.

There are questions about how a county ban would work.

Law enforcement agencies frequently work together on cases, and it's possible the King County Sheriff's Office could still use facial recognition in certain instances, such as missing person cases, as long as that material is provided by an outside agency.

The council is still discussing these scenarios and plans to revisit the proposal in two weeks, Kohl-Welles said.