FBI ignoring GAO’s accuracy, privacy concerns involving facial recognition technology

By Jon Dougherty

A government watchdog says the FBI is ignoring its concerns about the accuracy of facial recognition technology, as well as issues regarding citizens’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

NextGov reports that the bureau still hasn’t assessed whether its facial recognition technology has met accuracy and privacy standards fully three years after the Government Accountability Office raised a number of concerns regarding its use.

The site noted:

Since 2015, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have used the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System, which uses facial recognition software to link potential suspects to crimes, pulling from a database of more than 30 million mugshots and other photos.  

In May 2016, the Government Accountability Office recommended the FBI establish checks to ensure the software adhered to the Justice Department’s privacy and accuracy standards, but according to a report published Thursday, the bureau has yet to implement any of the six proposed policy changes.

GAO added every measure to the Justice Department’s list of “priority open recommendations,” though DOJ officials previously disputed whether four of the six policies are necessary.

“By addressing these issues, DOJ would have reasonable assurance that their [facial recognition] technology provides accurate information that helps enhance, rather than hinder, criminal investigations,” Gretta Goodwin, GAO’s director of justice and law enforcement issues, told Nextgov.

“Even more, DOJ would help ensure that it is sufficiently protecting the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. citizens.”

GAO auditors advised the FBI to test the effectiveness and accuracy of the NGI-IPS system annually and make adjustments and improvements as necessary. However, FBI officials have pushed back saying that annual reviews were not necessary because “no users have expressed concerns” about the system.

But under FBI, DoJ, and Office of Management and Budget policies, yearly evaluations of the system are required irrespective of any user feedback, according to GAO auditors.

The congressional watchdog also pressed the FBI to analyze the system’s rate of false positives — as in, how often the system misidentifies a suspect or a potential suspect. However, FBI officials have not yet done that, either.

In addition to its own system, the bureau also uses others developed by separate state and federal law enforcement agencies when conducting investigations. But GAO says the FBI isn’t testing those systems, either, to see whether they meet accuracy and privacy standards.

“Until FBI officials can assure themselves that the data they receive from external partners are reasonably accurate and reliable, it is unclear whether such agreements are beneficial to the FBI, whether the investment of public resources is justified, and whether photos of innocent people are unnecessarily included as investigative leads,” auditors wrote.

Also, the FBI has yet to implement two GAO recommendations for bolstering transparency of facial recognition operations and determining whether those practices are respectful of individual privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The report comes as the bureau is actually increasing its use of facial recognition tech.

Last year, the FBI began testing and evaluating a facial recognition tool that Amazon developed as a means of plowing through terabytes of surveillance footage collected during investigations.

Civil rights groups raised concerns regarding the accuracy of Amazon’s software after it matched 28 members of Congress to criminal mugshots (though in many cases, linking members of Congress to criminal activity is probably appropriate).

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