US Agencies Look at More Facial Recognition

Government’s use of biometrics grows despite privacy concerns

In a newly released report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), an increasing number of US federal agencies plan to expand their use of facial recognition technology to identify criminals and potential threats, as well as for authentication.

In a survey involving 24 federal agencies on their use of facial recognition technology, 10 of them reported that they plan to expand usage of facial recognition over the next few years. The agencies use face-scanning technology so employees can unlock their devices or access buildings, but a growing number said they are using it to track individuals. The US Department of Agriculture, for instance, said it wants to use facial recognition to monitor live surveillance feeds at its facilities and be alerted if it spots any faces found on a watch list.

The GAO report also showed extensive coordination between different agencies, sharing facial recognition systems and information. To date, there has been no standardization of facial recognition technology used by agencies. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses the Automated Biometric Identification System to process travellers at border crossings, whereas the FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation service allows for broad matching capability in criminal investigations.

Clearview AI, a controversial private company that compares new photos against data scraped from social media platforms, was used by several agencies and over 600 police departments across the US, including the FBI and DHS. The DHS and the Department of Justice used Clearview AI for conventional law enforcement searches, and the Department of the Interior employed the system for the US Park Police. Notably, the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services began a pilot of Clearview AI in September to assist with identifying subjects of a criminal investigation.

There is no federal regulation in the US on law enforcement using of facial recognition technology, but legislation is expected. Although many states and cities do ban law enforcement and government use of the software, local bans don’t prevent federal use.

Privacy advocates have raised significant concerns about racial bias in facial recognition, and states like Maine and Massachusetts have passed specific measures to limit its use. However, those efforts haven’t slowed its use by US Customs and Border Protection as the agency continues to expand its use of facial recognition in airports, as part of the Biometric Exit program, and also in voluntary programs like Global Entry.