Updated Jul 31, 2018

Exclusive: Democrats call for federal review of facial recognition

Amazon has come under fire for its facialrecognition software. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

A group of Democratic lawmakers want the Government Accountability Office to look at how companies and law enforcement agencies use facial recognition technologies.

Why it matters: Both Amazon and Microsoft have invited the government to lay out its views on the proper use of facial recognition technology. On the one hand, that introduces the possibility of regulation. On the other, the companies know that Congress is far from passing any actual legislation on the issue.

The details: In a letter sent to the GAO on Monday, top House Judiciary Committee Democrat Jerrold Nadler and Sens. Ron Wyden, Chris Coons, Ed Markey and Cory Booker asked the agency to look into a range of questions about facial recognition technology:

  • They asked the GAO to examine which law enforcement agencies use the technology, how they use it and what protections are in place to govern its use — as well as the market for data associated the technology.
  • The lawmakers suggest the agency buy facial recognition products to evaluate them with an eye toward “whether commercial entities selling facial recognition adequately audit use of their technology to ensure that use is not unlawful, inconsistent with terms of service, or otherwise raise privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns.”
  • “Given the recent advances in commercial facial recognition technology — and its expanded use by state, local, and federal law enforcement, particularly the FBI and Immigration and Customs and Enforcement — we ask that you investigate and evaluate the facial recognition industry and its government use,” the lawmakers wrote.

The context: When trained on a database that doesn't include a diverse set of faces, facial recognition software can exhibit bias. Studies have shown leading facial recognition platforms performing poorly on faces of women and people of color.

  • Last week, the ACLU clashed with Amazon over the company's Rekognition platform, which at least one police agency is using to match suspects’ faces with existing mugshots. The ACLU found that Rekognition misidentified 28 lawmakers as criminals; Amazon said the ACLU tested its software using the wrong settings.
  • Microsoft and IBM published improvements to their facial recognition platforms earlier this year, in response to an MIT study that found that they were biased. Earlier this month, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, called for “thoughtful government regulation” of facial recognition technology.
  • The lawmakers asked GAO to examine whether the government has processes in place to check for these biases when it procures facial recognition software, or whether available software has "a disparate impact on certain racial or ethnic groups."

Threat level: Low. Companies can score PR points by asking the government to step in without fearing that lawmakers will actually act quickly.

Go deeper

Mass shooting in Milwaukee: What we know

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2012. Photo: John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images

Six people died in a shooting at the Molson Coors Brewing Company in Milwaukee on Wednesday, including the gunman, Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters at a Wednesday evening press conference with local police.

Details: All of the victims worked at the brewery complex, as did the shooter who died of "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound," police confirmed in a statement late Wednesday.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 49 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus updates: South Korea case count tops 2,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

33 people in California have tested positive for the coronavirus, and health officials are monitoring 8,400 people who have recently returned from "points of concern," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,850 people and infected over 83,000 others in some 50 countries and territories. The novel coronavirus is now affecting every continent but Antarctica, and the WHO said Wednesday the number of new cases reported outside China has exceeded those inside the country for the first time.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Health

Syria's darkest chapter

Family room without a family, in Idlib. Photo: Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The worst humanitarian crisis of Syria’s brutal civil war is colliding today with what could be the war’s most dangerous geopolitical showdown, after at least 29 Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike.

The big picture: The fighting is taking place in Idlib in northwest Syria, where a ferocious Syrian and Russian offensive has displaced 1 million civilians and infuriated Turkey, which borders the region.

Go deeperArrow3 hours ago - World