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Maine's new facial recognition law bans the tech in schools, limits police use

Supporters say it's the toughest set of statewide regulations on facial recognition in the US.

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CNET

A statewide bill regulating the use of facial recognition technology in Maine was enacted Thursday after passing unanimously in both chambers of the state's legislature. Maine's new facial recognition law strictly regulates how law enforcement agencies can employ the technology for their investigations in the state, and it prohibits the tech outright in public schools and in many areas of government, including for surveillance purposes.

First introduced in April, the bill was brokered as a compromise between its sponsors in the state legislature and representatives of the ACLU of Maine, the Maine State Police and the Maine Department of Public Safety. Proponents of the bill touted it as the toughest set of statewide regulations on facial recognition in the US, where there are currently no federal laws regulating use of the technology.

"This is a huge victory for privacy rights and civil liberties in Maine," said bill sponsor Rep. Grayson Lookner, a Democrat representing Portland in Maine's House of Representatives. "It's also a victory for bipartisanship and cooperation. I hope that Maine can provide an example to other states that want to rein in the government's ability to use facial recognition and other invasive biometric technologies."

"Maine is at the forefront of a national movement to preserve civil rights and liberties in the digital age," added Alison Beyea, executive director at the ACLU of Maine. "Democracy is stronger and communities are safer when we have clear rules and accountability for how governments use new and emerging technologies."

That level of support for the bill stands in stark contrast to a similar law passed and then partially vetoed last year in Washington state, which the ACLU opposed for being too weak and for permitting agencies to use face surveillance technology to deny people essential services.

Under Maine's rule, law enforcement officials may request a facial recognition search on an individual from the FBI or the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles only if there's probable cause to believe the individual has committed a serious crime. The law also stipulates that facial recognition searches don't constitute probable cause for law enforcement officers to arrest or search a person on their own, and it mandates that the BMV keep records of all search requests. In addition, it ensures that individuals may bring a lawsuit if they believe a government agency or official has violated the law.

Maine's new law comes amid heightened scrutiny of facial recognition usage across the country. Earlier this week, a federal watchdog's report said 20 federal agencies now use facial recognition technology, with the majority drawing from non-federal systems like Clearview AI, Vigilant Solutions or Amazon's Rekognition. More than half, the report reads, are unaware of which system they're using.

"Maine is showing the rest of the country what it looks like when we the people are in control of our civil rights and civil liberties, not tech companies that stand to profit from widespread government use of face surveillance technology," said Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine.