FBI database stokes worries over facial recognition tech

FBI database stokes worries over facial recognition tech
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Lawmakers are intensifying their calls for a temporary ban on the federal government’s use of facial recognition technology after the disclosure that the FBI has amassed a database of more than 640 million photographs.

The revelation, made by a representative of the government’s top watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Tuesday, stunned lawmakers.

“640 million photos,” repeated Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTraditional media yawns as Maxine Waters gets pass on inciteful rhetoric Demings asked about Senate run after sparring with Jordan on police funding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After historic verdict, Chauvin led away in handcuffs MORE (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the panel.


“There are only 330 million people in the country,” he added. 

According to the watchdog, the FBI’s database includes 36 million mugshot photos and 21 state driver’s license directories to aid them in identifying people — including mostly U.S. citizens. 

FBI officials on a unit called the Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation Services are able to look through a database that includes driver’s license photos, visa applicant photos and information owned by the State and Defense departments to identify potential criminals. During criminal investigations, FBI agents can search the database with a photo of an unknown person to discover their identity. 

Kimberly Del Greco, a deputy assistant director at the FBI, emphasized that the bureau only uses facial recognition technology to help out with ongoing criminal investigations.

But that failed to assuage lawmakers from both parties at the hearing, who accused federal agencies of failing to implement adequate privacy and accuracy guardrails before deploying the technology across the country. They warned repeatedly that the committee is planning to take concrete steps to address those concerns. 

Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsOvernight Health Care: AstraZeneca may have included outdated data on vaccine trial, officials say | Pelosi says drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package | Biden administration extends special ObamaCare enrollment until August Pelosi: Drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package Bottom line MORE (D-Md.) criticized the FBI for failing to implement changes recommended by the GAO three years ago to address privacy and accuracy concerns about the technology. 

After the hearing, Oversight members from both parties told The Hill they would support a full moratorium on facial recognition technology until stakeholders can address civil rights and liberties concerns.

“Although the Committee has not called for a broad moratorium at this stage, I personally feel that we should consider it, and we will be continuing our robust bipartisan oversight of this issue to develop common-sense, concrete reforms that the whole Committee can support,” Cummings said in a statement to The Hill.

“The Oversight Committee is conducting an overarching review of facial recognition technology across all government agencies and the private sector, and today’s hearing was our latest step in that process,” he added. 

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Stephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill that he believes “we do have to have a pause on the implementation of facial recognition at a federal level ... until we make sure that it’s not violating our Fourth Amendment rights and civil liberties.”

The disclosure of the FBI database comes as the debate over facial recognition technology, which analyzes people’s faces for the purposes of identifying them, intensifies.

A coalition of prominent privacy and civil rights groups have been calling for an all-out ban on its use by the government. They cite studies showing that the technology wrongly recognizes some populations at higher rates and privacy concerns over how the government is handling the reams of private data.

Last month, San Francisco became the first city to ban its city government agencies from using facial recognition technology at all, and similar proposals are being weighed in other cities, including Somerville, Mass.

Cummings cited local bans as a possible model for the federal government. 

“Our hearings have demonstrated that there is significant bipartisan concern about the use of this technology by our government against our people without adequate safeguards,” Cummings said. “In fact, some cities are already imposing their own moratoriums, and some states are withdrawing their participation in joint arrangements with federal law enforcement.” 

There is, however, some daylight between the top Democrat and Republican on the committee. A spokeswoman for Jordan told The Hill that concerns around facial recognition tech are “an important civil liberties issue that definitely we want to address,” but declined to say whether the ranking member is ready to back a moratorium. 

“Moving forward, we are working with the majority on finding a solution,” the spokeswoman said.

Jordan at a previous hearing said he might support a “time out” on the government’s use of the technology, but the committee has yet to detail specific recommendations.

Meadows, though, insisted there was “bipartisan” interest in that proposal.

“I can tell you ranking member Jordan and myself are very supportive of looking at guardrails for facial recognition,” Meadows told The Hill. 

Across the aisle, Democratic Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayLiberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Progressives target Manchin, Sinema with new PAC MORE (Mo.), another member of the committee, told The Hill he is “in favor of a moratorium.” 

“The technology and the ethics have not meshed perfectly, and we need to get this right,” Clay said. “It doesn’t need to be a moving target. We need to be sure about identification because making a mistake could ruin someone’s life.”  

He added that he would support halting the FBI’s and Transportation Security Administration’s programs that make use of the technology. 

Lawmakers are also facing pressure from outside groups to take action.

The day before the hearing, a coalition of more than 60 activist groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, in a letter to the committee called for a “federal moratorium on face recognition for law enforcement and immigration enforcement purposes until Congress fully debates what, if any, uses should be permitted.” 

“We should not move forward with the deployment of this technology until and unless our rights can be fully safeguarded,” wrote the groups, which include civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as prominent digital rights groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Cummings at the Tuesday hearing said House Oversight will hold a third hearing on facial recognition technology, after which the committee will begin assembling legislative proposals. 

“We will continue to hear from additional stakeholders through our subcommittees, each of which is tasked with a specialized focus, such as safeguarding civil rights and liberties, protecting consumers, examining our government’s acquisition of this technology, and reviewing national security concerns,” Cummings said.