Top Homeland Security Democrat voices opposition to facial recognition moratorium

Greg Nash

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on Thursday voiced concern about placing a federal moratorium on facial recognition technology, a proposal floated by several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I want to put the safeguards in place so that as we roll out technology we can assure the public that this is not an invasive technology,” Thompson told reporters after his committee held a hearing on the technology used to identify individuals by scanning their faces.

“We’re not prying in folks’ bedrooms. This is strictly a method of identification that helps keep us safe. And I think that would not put me on a moratorium route, but it would put me on the route to get us to 100 percent [accuracy],” he added.

Facial recognition technology has received increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and critics as its use in the United States has grown.

Thursday’s hearing focused on its use at ports of entry by the Department of Homeland Security to confirm travelers’ identities.

Civil rights groups have panned the technology as unwarranted surveillance, while multiple studies have found that it tends to misidentify women and people of color at comparatively higher rates than men and white people.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, released an expansive study in December finding that the majority of facial recognition systems have “demographic differentials” that can worsen their accuracy based on a person’s age, gender or race.

John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) office of field operations, responded to lawmakers bringing up the study during Thursday’s hearing, saying that CBP is using technology from one of the vendors that scored well in NIST’s study.

“The highest performing algorithms had minimal to undetectable levels of demographic-based errors,” he said.

Despite similar assurances from other government agencies using facial recognition technology, many lawmakers have suggested that a moratorium be placed on federal use until regulations are developed. 

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has suggest several times that the government put a “pause” on procurement, and told reporters last month that he is working with Democrats on legislation doing just that.

“Tell us what you’re doing. Tell us how you’re doing it. Tell us what agencies are using it, if at all,” Jordan said. “And also, while you’re telling us that, don’t expand.”

A Democratic staffer on the Oversight committee confirmed to The Hill that lawmakers are working across the aisle on the issue.

Thompson’s opposition to a federal moratorium could complicate that momentum.

Tags Bennie Thompson facial recognition technology Jim Jordan
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