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Fairfax senator’s bill expanding use of facial recognition technology draws mixed reactions

Fairfax County police badge (via FCPD/Facebook)

(Updated at 5:20 p.m.) A new bill that would let Virginia law enforcement use facial recognition technology is headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 741, which was proposed by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36), would let local law enforcement agencies use the technology to investigate specific criminal incidents related to certain acts of violence and to identify deceased individuals and victims of online child sexual abuse material.

“The bill would put regulations and restrictions in place along with regular transparency for the use of facial recognition — not just with law enforcement, but also with identifying persons,” Surovell said.

Passed by the Virginia General Assembly earlier this month, the bill was communicated to Gov. Glenn Youngkin last Tuesday (March 22). If signed, the bill would create a model for local law enforcement agencies, which could create their own policies but must meet standards set by the Virginia State Police.

For now at least, the legislative shift doesn’t seem to have inspired any particular interest from Fairfax County’s law enforcement agencies.

“Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office does not possess facial recognition technology and has no plans to acquire or implement such technology,” Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Andrea Ceisler told FFXnow.

County Director of Public Affairs Tony Castrilli said that the Fairfax County Police Department also does not currently use facial recognition technology.

“The legislative process regarding this bill is pending,” he said. “As a result we will not be providing any response at this time.”

Virginia currently has a partial ban on local law enforcement agencies using facial recognition technology. That measure took effect in July 2021.

The partial ban does not extend to the Virginia State Police, and local law enforcement agencies can apply to the state police to use the technology in their cases.

“The only system that has been and is currently in use is the Centralized Criminal Image System, which was procured through DataWorks Plus,” VSP Public Relations Director Corinne Geller said. “CCIS allows criminal justice users to access images for identification purposes as well as perform lineups, witness sessions and facial recognition searches.”

The system lets the VSP compare an unknown image to a database of mugshots of previous arrestees. The software returns a list of candidates, rather than making a one-to-one match. CCIS is contained within the VSP’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

Surovell says he developed S.B. 741 to replace the partial ban, arguing that facial recognition technology could help police solve cases more quickly. He specifically cited last year’s so-called “shopping cart killer” investigations as an example when talking to FFXnow.

Other lawmakers fear the bill may contribute to civil rights issues and over-policing.

“When we consider the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement, the stakes are high because a mistake could mean that you deny justice for a victim and you take away an innocent person’s freedom,” Del. Kathy Tran (D-42) said. “The research is clear — women and people of color, particularly Black and Asian people, have greatly elevated risks of being falsely identified by this technology.”

Youngkin has until 11:59 p.m. on April 11 to sign SB 741 into law. If he does, the Virginia State Police would be required to develop a policy for the technology’s use by Jan. 1, 2023.

Photo via FCPD/Facebook

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