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OLYMPIA, Wash. — Business groups are lining up in opposition to a bill in Washington state that would forbid commercial interests from obtaining or selling biometric information from individuals without their consent.

“Biometric identifiers” are characteristics unique to an individual’s body or behavior. These include fingerprints, retinal scans, voice prints, facial recognition, and programs that recognizes a person’s distinct ways of walking and moving. Such identifiers increasingly are increasingly being used to authenticate users in a wide variety of digital applications and services.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, testifying on the biometric privacy bill. (Photo: John Stang)
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, testifying on the biometric privacy bill. (Photo: John Stang)

“The outcome that we’re looking for is to stop the surreptitious collection of your most personal information. … People should have the right to know when that will be used,” said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, who introduced a bill in 2015 to forbid the practice. The House passed that bill 91-6 last year before the legislation stalled in the Senate.

This year, the House passed 87-10 a modified version of Morris’ bill, and the Senate Law & Justice Committee held a hearing on the legislation Tuesday.

So far, no state has passed such legislation. However, California and Washington have bills in play on this subject, with Morris saying the Washington legislation covers entire biometric systems compared to California focusing on individual biometric identifiers.

“This is a case of trying to be proactive, not reactive,” Morris said.

Morris’ bill would require a company or persons to obtain an individual’s specific consent to enter biometric identifiers into a biometric database, and to only keep the data in the system for a specified period of time. A company or person who collected the biometric information would not be allowed to sell or transfer that data to another party without the original person’s consent. Several confidentiality rules would have to be followed.

Morris said he got some input and fine-tuned the definitions in the 2016 bill to make them more precise and applicable to the biometric world than the 2015 version was. The Washington Attorney General’s Office would prosecute violations under the Consumer Protection Act.

On Tuesday, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs supported Morris’ bill without going into detail.

But opponents to the bill, at least in its current form, include the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Retail Association, the Washington Technology Industry Association, and TechNet, which is a network of technology executives. They argued that the bill’s definitions of biometric technical terms and business practices need more work — and that the bill does not address privacy issues as much as it should.

“The bill as it stands today would do more harm than good,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association.

Megan Schrader, executive director of TechNet, said, “We’re concerned that the bill has been rushed in the process. It is very broad.” She argued if the current bill becomes law, that would open up biometrics data collectors to frivolous lawsuits.

Committee chairman Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said, “These are legitimate concerns you’ve brought up. But to say that there is no urgency bothers me.”

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