Montana legislative committee debates proposed restrictions for facial recognition technology

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 6:53 PM, Jun 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-14 21:00:42-04

HELENA — On Tuesday, a Montana legislative committee said the state needs to do something to respond to the growth of facial recognition technology – but members aren’t yet on the same page about what that should be.

The Economic Affairs Interim Committee has been taking testimony and gathering information on the potential benefits and pitfalls of facial recognition for months, as part of a study the Legislature assigned them last year. At a Tuesday meeting, they debated how – and whether – state and local governments should be able to use facial recognition data.

The committee looked at one initial draft bill, which would prohibit state and local governments from using facial recognition systems, except to investigate a serious crime or a missing or endangered person, or to identify someone who has died. Law enforcement would also have to receive a warrant or court order in order to search the system.

The draft would also require third-party facial recognition providers contracting with governments to regularly destroy data after it’s used, and it would mandate that state and local agencies have “meaningful human review” before making any final decisions based on that data.

The proposed bill would give the Montana Department of Justice, Department of Corrections and Department of Labor and Industry exemptions to continue their current contracts with facial recognition systems. For example, the DOJ’s Motor Vehicle Division has a contract with the firm IDEMIA, intended to prevent identity theft in driver’s license applications by comparing the new photo to the old photo.

“Attorney General Knudsen respects Montanans’ right to privacy and does not believe in the unlimited use of facial recognition technology,” a DOJ spokesperson said in a statement to MTN. “Our agency will work within the guidelines set by the Legislature.”

Leaders with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry say they use the service for fraud prevention in unemployment insurance applications.

Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, said this proposal was only a first draft and intended to strike a balance.

“I really appreciate everyone’s help with this, and I hope that we can kind of decide where we want to go from here – straddling the fence, if you will, between privacy rights and investigating crime,” she said.

But several lawmakers said they still had serious privacy concerns about any use of facial recognition technology, and they favored much stricter regulations.

“Are we willing to give up our freedom for that safety, for the state of Montana?” asked Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork. “I want the state of Montana to be different than the rest of the states. We don’t need this.”

Noland said he favored putting aside the current draft and instead proposing a full moratorium on facial recognition technology in the state.

Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, said he wanted to keep a draft like the current one, so they can offer it to the Legislature as minimum guidelines, in case a stronger bill can’t pass.

“We need to come up with something we all can agree on, or as close to as possible, that we feel the rest of the Legislature can support, just so we have those sideboards,” Bogner said.

During the meeting, E.J. Redding spoke on behalf of Clearview AI – a company that has received national attention and scrutiny as one of the largest facial recognition databases. Redding said Clearview is not operating in Montana, but they are closely watching to see what the Legislature does.

“This is emerging and new technology,” he said. “It’s changing every day, it’s improving every day, and the last thing that we would like to see is tying the hands of law enforcement to use an emerging technology in a time when there’s more crime, more opportunities, more need for investigatory tools to put bad guys away.”

The committee plans to hold several more meetings on this issue before the end of the year, in hopes of finalizing a proposal that they can present to the full Legislature during the 2023 session.