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The Truth About The FBI's Facial Recognition Technology

The FBI quietly created a facial recognition technology which allows police and law enforcement to recognize individuals within the US without their knowledge. Now lawmakers want to know why they did it and why didn't we know about it.

Politicians and citizens have expressed a deep mistrust in the FBI's ability to protect the privacy of Americans and they have every right do so. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the Bureau failed to let Americans know that they were gathering pictures from motor vehicle departments across the nation. Now, more than 400 million people can be recognized by the FBI's facial recognition system, this is around 50% of Americans.

How it Works

The facial recognition system provides law enforcement the ability to search a database of more than 25 million photos. Law enforcement officers use search functions to try and identify unknown individuals using a photo of the suspect. The technology will produce a list of up to 50 potential matches, depending on the search settings.

fbi facial recognition technology.jpg

Though the system is operated by the FBI, state law enforcement agencies can join. As of 2016, law enforcement agencies in Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Maine, Texas, Maryland, and Arkansas were using the system, while several more desiring to become users.

Is it Accurate?

The accuracy of this technology is not clear at this time. According to the FBI, the system produces results that match around 85% of the time. However, these results come from controlled environment tests. In real life scenarios, people will most likely turn away from the camera, or wear accessories to avoid recognition. It also must be noted that these tests involved a high number of matches. We do not know how accurate the system is when the list is smaller.

Accuracy was also a big part of the Congressional Hearing this week. The FBI was grilled on the subject and the connection to racial profiling as studies have shown the software to have a higher rate of false positives for African-Americans. Essentially, if you are a black man or woman, there is an increased chance that you will be matched, and that match will be wrong. It is evidence like this that has so many feeling like the FBI is neglecting to acknowledge their technology could be severely flawed.

Why This Is Alarming

Facial recognition has the potential to be misused by anyone that operates the system if it is not regulated. One of the most concerning misuses would be the ability to connect with surveillance cameras for real-time tracking of individuals. A great example of this would be political protesters. Officials could enforce laws onto protesters by comparing surveillance footage with photos in the database. In fact, Baltimore police have already done this when they used social media photos to identify protesters that took to the streets after Freddie Gray was murdered.

What Happens Now?

The biggest issues for many is that the FBI failed to notify anyone that they would be using facial recognition software. The Department of Justice is legally required to update what is called the "Privacy Impact Assessment" whenever technology is developed by an agency that collects personal data...That did not happen.

Regardless of the outrage in Congress, it was concluded at one of the hearings that the FBI will continue to work with the DMV to collect driver's license pictures.

As Seen On

  • NBC
  • Fox News Channel
  • ABC
  • USA Today
  • CNN
  • CBS
  • Bravo
  • Newsweek
    The New York Times
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