Unchecked Federal Use of Facial Recognition Tech
by Anthony W. Accurso
A June 29, 2021, report from the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) details the use of facial recognition technology (“FRT”) among federal agencies and documents alarming lack of accountability, transparency, or any meaningful policies governing its use.
The GAO report reviewed 42 of the 86 federal agencies that employ full-time law enforcement officers and found that 20 of them make use of FRT. Of these, “[t]hree owned internal systems, 12 used outside suppliers, and five both owned internal systems and used outside suppliers,” according to Reason.com.
Of the 20 agencies using FRT, half were using Clearview AI, a company that scraped Facebook and other social media sites to build the database it used to train the algorithm—a method that has come under fire from privacy advocates and ethicists. One quarter of the agencies used Vigilant Systems, the primary competitor to Clearview AI.
One relatively common, and fairly benign, use of FRT in agencies is identity verification. The Bureau of Prisons uses FRT as part of its system to control access to secure network operations centers. Customs and Border Protection uses FRT to verify the identity of certain travelers entering or leaving the country.
A much more disturbing use involves having FRT assist in identifying suspects in criminal (and sometimes non-criminal) investigations. For instance, “six agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Capitol Police, reported using [FRT] from May through August 2020 to support criminal investigations related to civil unrest, riots, and protests,” according to Reason.com.
Also disturbing is the finding that 13 of the agencies have no control preventing agent misuse of FRT outside of legitimate investigations. There is no information on whether these agencies are profiling and building files on legitimate protesters, a move that stifles First Amendment rights.
“Facial recognition is out of control, and it’s only getting worse,” said the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project’s Executive Director, Albert Fox Cahn. “We can’t wait on Congress to act, so we are calling on President Biden to issue a moratorium on federal facial recognition.”
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