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OLYMPIA, Wash. — A bill to forbid businesses from obtaining or selling biometric information from individuals without their consent is now headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk to become law.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-40

Earlier this week, the Washington state Senate passed the bill by Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, by a 37-12 vote. The House earlier approved the measure 81-17.

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

Morris’ bill prohibits the sale, lease or disclosure of a biometric identifier for commercial use if certain criteria are not met. Those criteria include whether biometric information is actually needed for a transaction, and if the need for biometric information is spelled out in state or federal law. The bill also makes putting biometric identifiers into a database illegal without the person’s consent — meaning such information cannot be collected surreptitiously. And the bill lays out rules governing access to and retention of biometric identifiers.

Senate Democrats led by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D- Seattle, made an unsuccessful attempt at the Senate vote to make the regulated activities more specific — essentially narrowing and detailing some broad definitions in the bill. Vaguer definitions could lead to some companies being open to lawsuits even though they made good-faith efforts to comply with the biometrics law, he argued.

Since the Washington Consumer Protection Act will be the legal instrument to deal with any violations of Morris’ bill, Pedersen argued that the biometrics definitions need to be more precise for the consumer law to be used as an enforcement tool.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and chairman of the Senate’s Law & Justice Committee, said: “We felt (the broader definitions) would better handle technological advances made in the future.”

“I feel conflicted about this bill. Those are important privacy issues. … I suspect we’ll be back here in future sessions for some cleaning up,” Pedersen said.

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