Privacy Advocates: FBI's Facial Recognition System 'Out Of Control'

The FBI uses a facial recognition database that uses information collected without the consent of targeted individuals, and privacy advocates aren't happy.

During last week's House Oversight Committee hearing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was grilled by both lawmakers and privacy companies over its use of facial recognition databases gathered without people's knowledge or consent.

But if the way this information is gathered wasn't enough of a concern to privacy advocates, officials were also grilled because of their use of algorithms that identify criminals among individuals listed in the database that make inaccurate matches about 15 percent of the time. With black people being more likely to be wrongly identified by the system than white people, this is a serious problem, the Guardian adds.

Over half of adult Americans' photographs have made their way into the database now being used by the FBI, and about 80 percent of these photos belong to individuals who aren't criminals.

As these facts were presented during last week's House Oversight Committee hearing, privacy advocates called for stricter regulations concerning facial recognition technology because, as we all know, the abuse of such databases has become a part of law enforcement, and its misuse is sending the wrong people to jail.

Understanding that facial recognition tools can be useful, Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-Calif.) said that they can also be used “by bad actors to harass or stalk individuals. It can be used in a way that chills free speech and free association by targeting people attending certain political meetings, protests, churches, or other types of places in the public.”

While discussing the many ways the law enforcement community is able to obtain images of individual Americans, Chaffetz said that the “most concerning” by far is the way people walking down the street may have their faces scanned without their consent. In order to avoid infringing on people's privacy rights, he continued, we must “conduct proper oversight of this emerging technology.”

As it stands, Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, said that “[n]o federal law controls this technology, no court decision limits it. This technology is not under control.”

With the FBI launching the Next Generation Identification biometric database in 2010, the already-existing fingerprint database was expanded to include facial recognition capabilities. Despite the creation of a new database then, the public wasn't alerted about it for at least five years.

Unlike fingerprint and DNA collections, which are only produced upon the individual's arrest, the images of innocent civilians are being collected proactively. Now, the FBI has a “deal” with at least 18 states, with a database of driver's license photos.

According to the government watchdog, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the FBI's facial recognition technology is lacking in accountability. With drivers across the country unaware their information is being shared with the intent of the creation of a criminal database by the FBI, we can say for a fact that is entirely accurate.

With privacy advocates raising concerns associated with how the FBI fails to test for false positives or racial bias, it's important to note how the FBI's decision to unilaterally create a database of Americans without having the program approved by Congress first disproportionately affects people of color.

Claiming that its database helps to solve crime, Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI's deputy assistant director of criminal justice information, adds that the system is simply used to generate “investigative leads,” not to identify suspects.

Still, even companies behind these technologies say they believe that more safeguards should be put in place.

Brian Brackeen, CEO of Kairos, told reporters that “[t]here has got to be privacy protections for the individual.” Because government isn't transparent with how it uses facial recognition technology, Brackeen says that Kairos refuses to work with officials.

Until accountability is respected, he says his top-of-the-line technology won't be available to the FBI.

With reports showing even the CIA has advanced surveillance tools that we never even dreamed of until recently, it's hard to see the FBI changing its ways anytime soon — unless real public pressure is built.


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