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FBI clarifies facial recognition technology use in New York Times letter


The New York Times published an editorial-opinion letter written by Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the FBI’s science and technology division, which clarified several points regarding the FBI’s Next Generation Identification technology’s use of facial recognition analysis.

The letter was in response to a Times article entitled “Police Depts. Using ID Tool Honed in War” that appeared on the publication’s front page on August 13.

The Times piece focused mainly on the San Diego Police Department’s alleged misuse of facial recognition software, but also delves into the FBI’s controversial $1 billion Next Generation Identification program which involves the use of facial recognition software.

In the letter, Hess clarifies several misconceptions about the agency’s use of facial recognition technology, particularly in regards to using the software to analyze driver’s license photos and images from surveillance cameras.

She writes:

“While the Next Generation Identification technology could theoretically be used to search a wide range of photos, in practice it searches only against a pool of existing mug shots. The database is not a repository for Department of Motor Vehicle photographs or surveillance photos.

“Furthermore, the F.B.I.’s Next Generation Identification system does not use facial recognition analysis to positively identify individuals. Rather, the technology applies an algorithm to compile an array of photographs with physical characteristics similar to those of the suspect in the submitted photo. Investigators may then take logical investigative steps, under proper legal authorities, to generate and pursue leads based upon the results.

“The F.B.I. is committed to the protection of individual privacy rights and civil liberties. There are many important discussions that have taken place, and will continue to take place, about government surveillance and investigative authority.”

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