Federal Agencies Using Unregulated Facial Recognition Tech

Published · Jul 22, 2021

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security met to discuss internal matters. Concerns were raised over the abundant and unregulated access federal law enforcement has to facial recognition technology.

Committee members and experts from both sides of the political aisle are worried about the current uses of facial recognition and their implications. Namely, invasions of privacy, the procurement of images without proper consent, and algorithmic bias.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a survey of 42 federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers. It discovered that 20 of these agencies—including the FBI, US Customs and Border Protection, and IRS Criminal Investigation Division—have or use facial recognition systems that belong to other entities.

Personal Info Abuse by Government Agencies?

Of the 14 agencies that reported using this authentication method in criminal investigations (e.g., to run background checks), 13 did not have up-to-date information on what systems employees are using. This means that they may be relying on systems owned by other entities.

GAO Director Gretta Goodwin stressed that facial recognition is growing stronger. If agencies don’t know how or if their employees are using it, she added, “they cannot ensure that the proper appropriate protections are in place.”

According to tech policy researcher Kara Fredrick, the FBI has access to over 640 million photos. Some of these were obtained through private companies that scrape social media sites for personal information.

These federal agencies use facial recognition to strengthen processes, such as running people searches on persons of interest.

The problem is that this tech is being sourced from private entities, which might not have the same checks and balances in place as federal bodies. The fact that the agencies don’t seem to have a firm grasp on its use and sources compound concern.

While regulatory bodies work out the details, citizens are equally worried about the impacts this could have on civil liberties. Luckily, there are many tools available to lessen one’s online footprint, such as virtual private networks and personal information removal tools.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.