The federal government plans to expand its use of facial recognition to pursue criminals and scan for threats, an internal survey has found, even as concerns grow about the technology’s potential for contributing to improper surveillance and false arrests.
Ten federal agencies — the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, State, Treasury and Veterans Affairs — told the Government Accountability Office they intend to grow their facial recognition capabilities by 2023, the GAO said in a report posted to its website Tuesday.
Most of the agencies use face-scanning technology so employees can unlock their phones and laptops or access buildings, though a growing number said they are using the software to track people and investigate crime. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, said it wants to use it to monitor live surveillance feeds at its facilities and send an alert if it spots any faces also found on a watch list.
The government’s expansion comes as major tech companies have pushed to stall law enforcement’s adoption of the software. Amazon said in May that it had stopped selling its facial recognition software Rekognition to U.S. police, citing the lack of federal laws governing how the software should be used. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Three states — Virginia, Massachusetts and Maine — and more than a dozen cities, including Boston, Portland and San Francisco, have banned or restricted the technology’s use by public officials or police.
Representatives from both parties voiced concerns about the technology during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month. And Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in April introduced a bill that would ban the government from using facial recognition systems that relied on data that had been “illegitimately obtained.”
Proponents say the software’s accuracy is improving and that it has played a critical role in helping track and identify major criminals. But the technology’s accuracy has been shown in research to vary wildly depending on the skin color of the person being surveilled. Facial recognition searches have been cited in at least three wrongful arrests, all of which were of Black men, and in the identification of protesters accused of violence during demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd.
“Even with all the privacy issues and accuracy problems, the government is pretty much saying, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,’” said Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington.
Many of the technology’s uses are commonplace or uncontroversial, including for secure-doorway access or to match a person’s face to their passport, Laperruque said. But some of its more pervasive law enforcement uses, he said, “present a really big surveillance threat that only Congress can solve.”
The GAO said in June that 20 federal agencies have used either internally developed or privately run facial recognition software, even though 13 of those agencies said they did not “have awareness” of which private systems they used and had therefore “not fully assessed the potential risks … to privacy and accuracy.”
In the current report, the GAO said several agencies, including the Justice Department, the Air Force and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reported that they had used facial recognition software from Clearview AI, a firm that has faced lawsuits from privacy groups and legal demands from Google and Facebook after it copied billions of facial images from social media without their approval.