US government agencies plan to increase their use of facial recognition technology

Ten agencies are also working on research and development in this area, including the Departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, and State. The agencies ranged in their goals, but some reported researching the well-documented bias of many facial recognition systems. The Department of Justice, for example, studied the relationship between skin tone and false match rates in facial recognition algorithms. Others were researching how to make such systems more accurate even while scanning people who are wearing masks.

The report also showed extensive interagency coordination and sharing of facial recognition systems and information. Many federal agencies reported that they procured their facial recognition systems from state and local governments. The Department of Homeland Security revealed that its information network “contains a mechanism to request third party facial recognition searches through the listed state and local entities, such as fusion centers.”  

A spokesperson for the nonprofit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “This important GAO report exposes the federal government’s growing reliance on face surveillance technology. Most disturbing is its use by law enforcement agencies. Yet face surveillance is so invasive of privacy, so discriminatory against people of color, and so likely to trigger false arrests, that the government should not be using face surveillance at all.”

In June, the GAO released a report on the facial recognition capabilities of 42 federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers. It showed that several law enforcement agencies used facial recognition in the aftermath of the racial justice protests last summer and the January attack on the US Capitol. The report also showed that 13 of the 42 agencies do not fully understand their own use of the technology. Reporting from BuzzFeed News shows that the GAO report was likely incomplete, with five federal agencies saying that they had not used Clearview AI’s system when they had. 

Adoption of the technology is growing at all levels of government. This past March, Clearview AI said that 3,100 of the 18,000 US federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies—around 17%—have used its software. 

There is no federal regulation in the US on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, though legislation is anticipated. Many states and cities do ban law enforcement and government use of the software, though local bans don’t prevent federal use. 

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