Silicon Valley Rep Calls For Task Force, Legislation on Government Use of Biometrics

Rep. Ro Khanna

Rep. Ro Khanna Andrew Harnik/AP

Rep. Ro Khanna said Congress should dictate exactly how federal agencies use technologies like facial recognition. But first, the legislative body needs to get properly educated.

Federal agencies focused on national security, including the FBI and Homeland Security components like Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Agency are all using various forms of biometrics as part of their law enforcement and security missions.

As agencies deploy biometric technologies like fingerprints, facial and iris recognition and even DNA, the newer technologies, like facial recognition, come with significant accuracy, privacy and civil liberties concerns, prompting at least one lawmaker to call for a congressional task force and, ultimately, legislation on how the tech is used.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district includes Silicon Valley and many of the companies developing facial recognition and other biometric technologies, said federal agencies should halt any such programs until there are “clear ethical guidelines” in place.

“Where they are being used we should adopt clear ethical guidelines—making sure that there’s not discriminatory intent, making sure it’s not being used for profiling, making sure there’s not systemic bias in there. These guidelines are being developed in places like Stanford and AI Institute and other academic institutions. I think the government needs to look at what those guidelines are and adopt them,” Khanna said during a roundtable with reporters. “And before they’re adopting them, if they’re using them and there’s complaints that they’re having a disparate impact on race or on gender or on religion, they should have a moratorium on that until they can adopt guidelines to make sure that the use is fair.”

Last week, another lawmaker, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called on TSA to halt its facial recognition program until formal policies are put in place. TSA officials told Nextgov the technology is currently only being used in limited pilots, and the agency is working on formal policies as the pilot develops.

Eventually, Khanna said he would like to see Congress pass legislation detailing exactly how government should use biometric technologies. However, he doesn’t want to jump in without fully understanding the problem.

“If today we just started to legislate the standard, I’m not sure we have sufficient expertise to be able to do that. What I would recommend is that Congress should create a task force and have some leading academics and industry experts and non-profit groups help advise us on what those standards should be,” he said. “I think there should be a federal standard. But it has to be a thoughtful one. And it can’t just be a reflexive standard that doesn’t have sufficient input.”

While Khanna said he wants the process to be deliberative, time is also of the essence.

“We should get ahead of that and ahead of artificial intelligence so that we don’t have the same situation that happened in privacy, where we don’t have a congressional standard and we’re basically looking to Europe and the [General Data Protection Regulation],” he said.