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Committee reviews U.S. law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology


The House Committee on Oversight and Government Regulation held a bipartisan hearing Wednesday morning to review the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) by law enforcement agencies, particularly the policies of the FBI.

The committee reviewed the current state of FRT, its many uses, benefits and challenges, and ultimately assessed whether any legislation is required.

Last May, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report stating that the FBI should better ensure privacy and accuracy in its use of FRT, according to a report by NBC News.

In the report, the GAO warned that there is “limited information on the accuracy of its face recognition technology capabilities”, and that the FBI did not determine how often these searches “erroneously match a person to the database (the false positive rate).”

Based on these findings, the GAO made several recommendations, including proposing that the FBI conduct more testing to “help ensure that the system is capable of producing sufficiently accurate search results.”

The Department of Justice rejected the GAO’s recommendation for more accuracy testing, stating that current testing is adequate.

The Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law addressed this issue by recommending that the FBI simply test its system for racial bias. However, the FBI responded by claiming that there is no inherent need to test for racial bias because its facial recognition system is “race blind.”

In his opening statement, congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland) discussed concerns regarding the “accuracy of facial recognition technology, its disparate impact on certain populations, and its use against law-abiding Americans.”

He expressed his support for law enforcement authorities having access to “the most advanced crime fighting tools” to protect the public, but emphasized that there are many questions being raised about the “accuracy of facial recognition technology, its disparate impact on certain populations, and its use against law-abiding Americans”.

Cummings said that the committee needed to directly examine these questions in order to “help law enforcement authorities do their job as effectively as possible, while at the same time protecting the rights of [their] constituents”.

The committee specifically focused on the FBI’s use of FRT and the FBI policies that regulate the recording, retention and use of photographs by law enforcement.

The hearing featured testimonials from several key representatives, including Kimberly Del Greco, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services division; Diana Maurer, director of homeland security and justice issues at U.S. Government Accountability Office; Dr. Charles Romine, director of information technology lab National Institute of Standards and Technology; Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law; Benji Hutchinson, senior director of NEC Corporation of America; and Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Del Greco discussed two FBI programs that leverage facial recognition, starting with Next Generation Identification Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS), which allows the FBI and selected state and local law enforcement to search a database of over 30 million photos.

The agency has agreements with at least 17 states that allow it to request a FRT search of state driver’s license databases.

In addition, the FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services Unit compares the facial images of persons associated with open assessments and investigations against facial images available in state and federal face recognition systems.

Del Greco also discussed how FBI audits serve a critical role in identifying and mitigating risks associated with users of information systems not meeting policy requirements.

In his testimonial, Bedoya discussed how the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law estimated that nearly one in two Americans is in a facial recognition database to which law enforcement has access.

Lynch emphasized that the Federal government needs to implement certain regulations to safeguard privacy issues regarding law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology.

“Face recognition and its accompanying privacy and civil liberties concerns are not going away,” Lynch said in her testimony. “Given this, it is imperative that government act now to limit unnecessary data collection; instill proper protections on data collection, transfer, and search; ensure accountability; mandate independent oversight; require appropriate legal process before collection and use; and define clear rules for data sharing at all levels. This is important to preserve the democratic and constitutional values that are bedrock to American society.”

Previously reported, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit against the FBI last November to force the agency to release all documents related to its plan to provide the Department of Defense with access to biometric information.

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