The NCSL Blog


By Ed Smith

Oscar Wilde famously observed that “a mask tells us more than a face.”

Modern facial recognition technology responds: Not so much these days.

A session at Monday’s opening day of NCSL’s 2015 Legislative Summit—Facial Recognition Technology in the Modern World—looked at the dangers and potential of facial recognition technology. One thing everyone agreed on is that the technology is far more sophisticated and ubiquitous than most of us realize.

You already are encountering facial recognition technology everywhere from a nightclub to a car dealership and even in church, said Alvaro Bedoya from Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School.

Alvaro Bedoya makes a point during his presentation on Monday.

“Our privacy laws are not ready for this,” Bedoya said. “We need to fix this. We need to figure out a way to get the benefits of this technology and avoid abuse and overreach.”

Currently there are three levels of technology: characterization, recognition and identification.

While the first two are common and not particularly invasive, it’s facial identification—the ability to capture your facial characteristics and link them to other information about you in data sets—that prompts the most debate.

Bedoya urged state legislators to pass biometric privacy legislation, such as legislation in Texas and Illinois.

Daniel Castro of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C., advised caution. He noted that if lawmakers had tried to regulate the Internet in a similar fashion 20 years ago the innovation we’ve seen over that period might have been far different.

President Grover Cleveland, he noted, banned cameras from the White House not long after they became commonplace. One could draw a line between that and the concern about Google Glass.

“I think people are comfortable with the loss of privacy,” Castro said. “There are problems but people have achieved a comfort level with this.”

He made the case that the technology can be invaluable in trying to interrupt human trafficking, child abductions and enhance online security. Telebanking and telehealth applications both benefit from facial recognition, Castro noted.

“This gets to questions of freedom,” he said. “We’re saying the government should prevent me from doing mathematical calculations on my computer.”

In the end, he argued, it’s about innovation.

“When you have to click yes to innovate that’s bad.”

Ed Smith is NCSL’s director of Digital Communications.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.