Guest Column

Montanans’ Constitutional Right to Privacy is at Risk

The use of facial recognition technology is growing, and it sometimes serves a good purpose. But this technology is also a new wild West.

By Katie Sullivan

The IRS recently attempted to require facial recognition scans to pay taxes online. Under their plan, folks would have had to submit a scan of their face to a third-party company to access basic online government services. After strong pushback from privacy advocates, including Senator Jon Tester, the IRS backed off that scheme. But it shows there is a push to let big tech companies collaborate with government agencies to collect more of people’s personal data, and how little safeguards we have in place to prevent overreach.

Use of facial recognition technology is growing, and even a privacy advocate like myself can admit it sometimes serves a good purpose – like helping police catch perpetrators of violent crime or human trafficking or prevent fraud. But this technology is also a new wild west. An ironclad right to privacy is one of the foundational building blocks of Montana’s Constitution, but in spite of that, we don’t have any guardrails in place to guarantee that Montanans’ data is protected from misuse by the government or sold by private corporations to the highest bidder.

I tried to get ahead of this troubling threat to our privacy during the last legislative session, but politics got in the way. I introduced a bill that would have ensured that facial recognition technology could only be used to solve the most serious crimes, but also prevented it from being used to monitor or track Montanans. This was a bipartisan bill, and a number of Republicans joined me in supporting these common-sense guardrails, but not enough to get it over the finish line. I was disappointed, but I’m not giving up.

Even though my bill didn’t pass, I was able to secure an interim study on facial recognition technology. My colleagues in the Legislature are working with me to more deeply understand how facial recognition technology is being used by government agencies. We are also studying what laws we can pass next session to prevent invasion of privacy by both the government and big tech. 

It seems like opinions are shifting and more folks are realizing that we can’t sit back and do nothing while tech companies collect our private data and hand it over to the government. I’m optimistic that we can work together to create greater protections for our inviolable right to privacy – and a future where we don’t have to choose between that right and the convenience that comes with advances in technology.

Rep. Katie Sullivan (D-Missoula) represents House District 89 in the Montana Legislature.

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