Olympia, Wash., Seeks Legislation to Protect Biometric Data Privacy

Companies are now preparing to start selling technology to identify people in myriad ways.

by Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash. / March 7, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Technology is almost always ahead of the law. Almost.

Here is an exception. An effort in Olympia aims to enact laws that to protect the privacy of Washingtonians from the misuse of soon-to-be-released technology that can capture their biometric data — everything from retinal scans, handprints, fingerprints, voice imprints and facial geometry.

Frankly, this is something Congress should be addressing at the federal level. It’s going to be a national concern fairly soon.

But, until federal lawmakers take a stand, it’s appropriate — and welcome — that Washington’s lawmakers are looking at taking action. To this point, only Texas and Illinois have acted.

Melissa Santos of the Tacoma News Tribune reported that two proposals have been floated in Olympia. The goal is to prevent people’s characteristics from being cataloged and used without their knowledge.

Companies are now preparing to start selling technology to identify people in myriad ways.

“If I steal your password, you can do another password,” said state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, sponsor of legislation to establish rules for companies before they can enter people’s specific biometric information into a database for commercial purposes. To do that, companies would either have to notify a person, obtain his or her consent or provide a way to limit future commercial use of the data, according to the News Tribune.

“If I steal your biometrics, you’re not going to go get a face-lift. You’re not going to go break your legs so you walk differently. You’re not going to change your DNA out,” Morris said. “Because it’s irreplaceable, you always want to maintain some sort of joint ownership of it, so the consumer always controls where that goes.”

Another piece of legislation would restrict the collection of biometric data by public agencies. It requires government officials to notify people and obtain their consent before collecting their biometric information, while also prohibiting agencies from selling that data.

“I believe you should own the image of your face — not someone else,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, the prime sponsor of the measure. “That is very personal, private, intimate and unique to you and you alone, and we need to respect that both in the public and private sectors.”

Both proposals dealing with biometric data have cleared the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, meaning they are being given serious consideration this year.

In the past, lawmakers have balked at the effort for a variety of reasons, mostly because of concerns from technology companies and retailers.

Those concerns can be addressed by lawmakers and should not trump the privacy concerns of Washingtonians.

It’s time for the Legislature to act, and then remain focused on the issue to ensure the law stays ahead of technology.

©2017 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.