House Oversight grills law enforcement on facial recognition tech

House Oversight grills law enforcement on facial recognition tech
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers grilled law enforcement officials in a tense hearing Wednesday over their use of facial recognition programs. 

Democrats and Republicans raised concerns about the FBI’s use of facial recognition technology during a House Oversight Committee hearing, pressing a bureau official about the ability to access photos of hundreds of millions of citizens and the technology’s accuracy.  

“This is really Nazi Germany here that we’re talking about,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said of the facial recognition databases. “They had meticulous files on individuals, most of them of Jewish faith, and that’s how they tracked their people. I see little difference in the way people are being tracked under this.” 

Over 117 million American adults can be found in a law enforcement facial recognition database, which draws in part from drivers license data, according to an October report from the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.

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Oversight Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzDem demands documents from TSA after scathing security report Chaffetz replacement sworn in as House member Democrats expand House map after election victories MORE (R-Utah) asked the witnesses if the FBI had any plans to match the database up with anything that’s posted on social media.

“No, we are not. The only information the FBI has and has collected in our database are criminal mugshot photos,” said Kimberly Del Greco, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

“That’s not true,” Chaffetz replied. “You’re not collecting drivers licenses?”

Del Greco said the FBI only searches the criminal mugshots in their repository.

Lawmakers also questioned the use of technology that is less accurate when scanning the faces of African-Americans, women and younger people. 

The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said he believes police should have every tool they need to solve crime, but he fears what may happen to minorities. He cited reports that found the technology is 5 percent to 10 percent less accurate when scanning the faces of those who aren’t white males. 

“If you’re black, you’re more likely to be subjected to this technology,” Cummings said. “And the technology is more likely to be wrong. That’s a hell of a combination, especially when you’re talking about subjecting someone to the criminal justice system.” 

Privacy advocates and lawmakers also raised concern that people engaging in political activity may be targeted through the databases in a way that is “corrosive to liberty.”

"We need to take a step back and ask: If this technology had been in place for the Boston Tea Party or the civil rights protests, what would have happened?" said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology. 

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDems resurface Flynn's 'lock her up' comments after Mueller charges Virginia Dem jokes: ‘I am probably not interested’ in being Time’s 'Person of the Year' Lights, camera, SCOTUS MORE (D-Va.) told Del Greco that he thinks the way the programs are currently being utilized is “on very shaky legal grounds” and will have to get “tested in court.”