Oct 10, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Report: Feds need rules for using facial recognition tech

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on Nov. 20, 2020, checks a passenger arriving on an international flight using facial-recognition technology to automate the manual document checks required for admission into the United States.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer checks a passenger arriving on an international flight using facial-recognition technology. Photo: Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Several federal law enforcement agencies haven't properly trained their staffs on how to use facial recognition technology or imposed policies to protect the public's civil rights when it's used, a report by a government watchdog says.

Why it matters: Facial recognition technology is being used increasingly by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and has led to several false arrests nationwide — largely of Black men and women, according to advocates, research and news reports.

  • The technology also has long been faulted for failing to accurately identify Black people and others with dark skin tones.
  • Even so, police, retail stores, airports and sports arenas are rapidly turning to the technology. Some local governments that initially restricted its use are weighing whether to ease those limits because of jumps in crime.
  • Last year a Black man was jailed in Georgia for nearly a week after a facial recognition system incorrectly matched his face with a suspect in a New Orleans robbery, his lawyer told the New Orleans Advocate.
  • The man — who said he'd never been to Louisiana — was released after detectives realized the mistake, the Advocate reported.

Zoom in: The recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that from October 2019 to March 2022, the FBI, DEA, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations and three other agencies used facial recognition systems for criminal probes without requiring staff training.

  • Only three agencies — HSI, the Marshals Service and the Secret Service —had policies or guidance for using the technology that specifically addressed civil rights and civil liberties, the report said. The Secret Service largely halted its use of facial recognition in April 2020.
  • The GAO also found that six agencies cumulatively conducted about 60,000 photo searches without having the proper training requirements in place.

How it works: The latest facial recognition surveillance technology is designed to identify people seen on security cameras in real-time, or close to it, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick reports.

  • It aims to match security camera footage with publicly available images, such as police mug shots or social media profiles, tied to that person's identity.

Zoom out: The Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella department over several of the agencies in the report, plans to finalize a department-wide civil rights policy tied to facial recognition systems by December, the GAO report says.

  • "DHS remains committed to embedding and enforcing privacy, civil rights and civil liberties protections, and enhancing transparency, in all DHS activities and programs, as appropriate," the department said in a letter to the GAO.
  • The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI and other agencies, has taken steps to issue a department-wide policy but has faced delays in part because of funding issues.
  • A Justice Department spokesperson told Axios the department is reviewing the report.

What's next: The GAO gave 10 recommendations on how Justice and Homeland Security strengthen civil rights and training around the technology.

  • One suggested that the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should periodically monitor whether HSI staff using facial recognition services have completed training requirements.
  • Another called for the attorney general to develop a plan for issuing a facial recognition technology policy that addresses safeguards for civil rights and civil liberties.
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