Report highlights civil liberties concerns with facial recognition technology

WASHINGTON D.C. — Facial recognition technology (FRT) can allow investigators to scan billions of photos or videos quickly to identify a potential suspect or a victim.


Now, a new watchdog report is revealing more about how often federal law enforcement agencies use the tool and the training for staff.

Federal investigators used FRT to identify suspects connected to criminal activity in the 2020 nationwide protests, and after the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol attack to identify suspects inside the Capitol.

The new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says seven federal law enforcement agencies have used FRT. That includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Marshals Service.

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The findings say all seven started using the technology before training was put in place.

“We learned about 60,000 searches had been conducted before anyone in those agencies were required to take any type of training,” said Gretta Goodwin, a Director for GAO’s Justice and Law Enforcement Issues Team. “That’s a concern.”

“It is absolutely galling that we have these federal agencies playing with fire here with no policies and no training in a lot of circumstances,” said Nate Freed Wessler, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Civil rights advocates like the ACLU caution facial recognition technology can violate the rights of everyday people and potentially lead to the arrest and prosecution of innocent people.

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Research shows errors are most common when trying to identify women and people of color.

“It gets it wrong even in the best of circumstances,” said Wessler. “This technology gets it particularly wrong when it’s used in the real world with low-quality input images from say surveillance cameras.”

Civil liberties advocates argue it can also have a chilling effect on people looking to exercise their First Amendment right by protesting.

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“We’ve never expected that just by showing up to protest that police would be able to automatically log our attendance just based on our face,” said Wessler.

The report says some of the seven agencies now have training policies in place that include explaining how FRT affects civil liberties, but it’s not fully implemented across the board yet.

“If you’re going to continue to use these technologies, you really need to have policies in place that will help determine and guide the law enforcement officers in how to use it,” said Goodwin.

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