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GAO Update on FBI Facial Recognition Technology: Questions Remain Over Accuracy and Privacy

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) face recognition office can now search databases with more than 641 million photos, including 21 state databases.

Technology advancements have increased the overall accuracy of automated face recognition over the past few decades. This technology has helped law enforcement agencies identify criminals in their investigations. However, there are questions about the accuracy of the technology and the protection of privacy and civil liberties when face recognition technologies are used to identify people for investigations.

In May 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI could improve transparency and oversight to better safeguard privacy and had limited information on accuracy of its face recognition technology. GAO made six recommendations to address these issues. As of May 2019, DOJ and the FBI had taken some actions to address three recommendations—one of which the FBI has fully implemented—but has not taken any actions on the other three.

In its May 2016 report, GAO found that DOJ did not complete or publish key privacy documents for FBI’s face recognition systems in a timely manner and made two recommendations to DOJ regarding its processes for developing these documents. These included privacy impact assessments (PIA), which analyze how personal information is collected, stored, shared, and managed in federal systems, and system of records notices (SORNs), which inform the public about, among other things, the existence of the systems and the types of data collected. DOJ has taken actions to expedite the development process of the PIA.

However, DOJ has yet to take action with respect to the development process for SORNs. GAO continues to believe both recommendations are valid and, if implemented, would help keep the public informed about how personal information is being collected, used and protected by DOJ components. GAO also recommended the FBI conduct audits to determine if users of FBI’s face recognition systems are conducting face image searches in accordance with DOJ policy requirements, which the FBI has done.

GAO also made three recommendations in May 2016 to help the FBI better ensure the accuracy of its face recognition capabilities. First, GAO found that the FBI conducted limited assessments of the accuracy of face recognition searches prior to accepting and deploying its face recognition system. The face recognition system automatically generates a list of photos containing the requested number of best matched photos. The FBI assessed accuracy when users requested a list of 50 possible matches, but did not test other list sizes. GAO recommended accuracy testing on different list sizes. Second, GAO found that FBI had not assessed the accuracy of face recognition systems operated by external partners, such as state or federal agencies, and recommended it take steps to determine whether external partner systems are sufficiently accurate for FBI’s use.

The FBI has not taken action to address these recommendations as of May 2019. GAO continues to believe that by verifying the accuracy of both systems—its system, and the systems of external partners—the FBI could help ensure that the systems provide leads that enhance criminal investigations.

GAO also found that the FBI did not conduct an annual review to determine if the accuracy of face recognition searches was meeting user needs, and recommended it do so. In 2016 and 2017 the FBI submitted a paper to solicit feedback from system users. However, this did not result in formal responses from users and did not constitute a review of the system. GAO continues to believe that conducting such a review would help provide important information about potential factors affecting accuracy of the system.

Read the full report at GAO

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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