Oversight Committee Finds FBI's Facial Recognition Database Still Filled With Innocent People, Still Wrong 15% Of The Time

from the bigger-but-no-better dept

The House Oversight Committee finally took on the FBI's Facial Recognition Program and discovered what critics have been saying about it for years: it's broken, filled with innocent Americans, and completely out of control.

Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.

These aren't new criticisms. While the accuracy of database searches has gotten (slightly) better over the past seven years (it was only 80% "right" in 2010), nothing else has changed. The FBI is working with local agencies, like state drivers license issuers, to ensure its facial recognition database is continually stocked with non-criminal entries.

The database continues to expand, as does its application. As was covered during the hearing, multiple body camera vendors are offering products that provide real-time face scanning, which turns routine patrol work into low-key surveillance. As it stands now, biometric databases and scanning are the real Wild West, but filled with rogue law enforcement efforts, rather than the other way around. Not only did the FBI deploy its biometric database well ahead of its Privacy Impact Assessment, it did so with nothing in the way of legal guidance. Several years later, this hasn't changed either.

“No federal law controls this technology, no court decision limits it. This technology is not under control,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the center on privacy and technology at Georgetown Law.

The Government Accountability Office's take on the FBI's facial recognition database hasn't improved much since last year. The FBI is still adding as many state databases to its central biometric storage as possible, while its oversight -- both the Inspector General's office and its Congressional overseers -- is being stiff-armed and stonewalled by an agency extremely adverse to attempts to curb its powers. As it expands the database -- and as more vendors and government agencies make use of the collected data -- the number of false positives will only increase. This could make life extremely difficult for any number of Americans.

“It doesn’t know how often the system incorrectly identifies the wrong subject,” explained the GAO’s Diana Maurer. “Innocent people could bear the burden of being falsely accused, including the implication of having federal investigators turn up at their home or business.”

The FBI's testimony attempted to downplay this aspect by claiming the database is only used for "investigative leads," rather than identification of suspects. But that doesn't do anything to change the scenarios presented by the GAO. A mistaken lead could easily turn into a false accusation and being under investigation definitely would result in the feds dropping by a person's work or home.

It's been nearly a decade since the FBI began working on this database and there's nothing to show for it but a slight uptick in accuracy. Civil liberties concerns remain unaddressed while the agency focuses on what's important to IT: adding as many people as possible to the database. It has yet to demonstrate its real-world effectiveness, appearing to be far more interested in the "collect it all" tactics of the intelligence agency it clearly idolizes and emulates.

Filed Under: face recognition, fbi, house oversight committee


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 9:55am

    Sooner rather than later we're going to have some innocent person shot by police because their camera picked their face as belonging to a wanted criminal. It's bad enough that people with names similar to people on the no-fly list get hassled every time they fly. Imagine how bad it's going to be for someone who looks similar to a wanted fugitive who is going to get pulled over or harassed every time a cop sees them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:00am

      Re:

      Being misidentified doesn't get you shot. Reacting in the wrong manner when confronted by police gets you shot.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Nick, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:44am

        Re: Re:

        Reacting in the wrong manner like having a game console controller in your hand?

        If you are suspected to be dangerous, many innocent behaviors from your point of view can be misinterpreted by a fearful cop.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:47am

        Re: Re:

        Reacting in the wrong manner when confronted by police gets you shot.

        Sometimes.

        Sometimes all it takes is breathing to get shot by a cop.

        Let me put this another way: A lot of folks are afraid of being killed by a terrorist. But the statistics show that the random person is three hundred times (times, not percent) more likely to be killed by a beat cop than a terrorist.

        Logically I should be much more afraid of my neighborhood cop than Osama Bin Laden (even if he wasn't dead.) And I am.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 11:53am

          Re: Re: Re:

          All it takes is a cop having a bad day to ruin your life and that a majority of the time justice will side with the cop. Because of that, I am far more afraid of a cop then any criminal or terrorist.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          David Pittelli, 3 Apr 2017 @ 11:30am

          Re: "three hundred times"

          1. US residents are 300 times more likely to killed by police only if you think that 9/11/2001 doesn't count. Why should we ignore this outlier? Because ISIS et al have sworn never again to attempt such a mass casualty attack?

          2. Terrorism hits US people pretty much at random (except with a bias toward urban concentrations of people). Killings by the police do not hit at anything like random. Judging from the Washington Post database, over 90% are straightforward cases of self defense. Even most of the causes célèbres of BLM involve felonious activity or struggling with or fleeing from the police.

          So no, the random person is about as likely, not 300 times more likely, to be killed by terrorism as by police, unless you mean "random" very literally, but misleadingly, to mean the selection of random people which includes those who tried to kill police.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2017 @ 11:56am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Why is it that most "random" people shot by police have criminal backgrounds? That doesn't seem to random to me.

          The recent shooting in Texas of an unarmed man is a good example. The guy had pcp in his car. Random? Random is when you were walking down the street and are hit by a stray policeman's bullet.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2017 @ 3:03am

        Re: Re:

        "Being misidentified doesn't get you shot. Reacting in the wrong manner when confronted by police gets you shot."

        And, pray tell. how does one "react" properly?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 9:59am

    Do we know that the 15% of innocent people in the database are not there as a check?

    As for the black people being misidentified, I guess black people all look the same even to the computer program?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:45am

    If it weren't for the premature adoption of the technology, I think we would all be celebrating the accomplishment of 85% accurate facial recognition. That figure actually sounds really good, especially if it's pulling a match from a huge database. A shame it isn't being used responsibly and has already led to false accusations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 11:11am

    “No federal law controls this technology, no court decision limits it. This technology is not under control,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the center on privacy and technology at Georgetown Law.

    This is far too nice a way of describing the problem. It would be more accurate to say that "No Federal law authorizes the FBI to recklessly create a database so likely to be abused, yet the FBI has done so anyway." The mere existence of this program demonstrates that the FBI has decided to follow the adage that it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. History tells us that such forgiveness from its supposed overseers is almost guaranteed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 12:07pm

      Re:

      Maybe the FBI should have to ask for forgiveness of people wrongfully convicted.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 2:06pm

        Re: Re:

        Maybe the FBI should have to ask for forgiveness of people wrongfully convicted.

        Why restrict it to wrongfully convicted? Accusation alone is unfortunately quite damning. Wrongfully arrested, even if found not guilty, is worse still. Wrongful conviction beats both those, but all three groups have a legitimate grievance if the wrongful actions were triggered by the poor quality of this database.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 11:54am

    The number of innocent people in the database doesn't matter, because law enforcement is looking to match. So they have a picture of someone they believe is a bad guy, and they match it back to the overall database to identify them.

    The issue is the 15% false match.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 12:06pm

      Re:

      It seems like the computer should be the first line of matching for automation purposes, followed by a human carefully looking at positive matches to screen out obvious mismatches.

      If they did that, I wonder how low the error rate might go?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 3:12pm

      Re:

      According to 2013 records, there were 242470820 adults in the US. About half are in the database from the article, meaning about 121 million entries in the database. A 15% error rate means 18 MILLION people are misidentified. So in terms of investigation, this technology is WORTHLESS.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 12:04pm

    misidentify more black people than white people

    The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.

    So the FBI's algorithm says "they all look alike to me"?

    Maybe it is a legitimate problem like inadequate training data for the AI. Or that the AI inaccurately makes certain facial measurements that are compared. It seems to me that if the developers of this can make it work for white people, they can make it work for black people. It's just a technical problem.

    Regardless of race / color, of the entire 15 % that are misidentified, maybe someone should be looking at WHY they are misidentified. What metrics or other factors caused these two person's photographs to be considered the same person? Can the algorithm be tweaked for that? Or can these be introduced into the training data as a definite mismatch to improve the AI training?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 1:39pm

      Re: misidentify more black people than white people

      It seems to me that if the developers of this can make it work for white people, they can make it work for black people. It's just a technical problem.

      Maybe yes, maybe no. By necessity, this is data that they took from unwilling, and often uninformed, members of the public. Even if we assume that they took only curated imagery (i.e. driver license official photographs), they are still reliant on the state to collect a quality photograph. If the photography environment is poor (e.g. using only the overhead general light instead of a specific flash when the image is captured), the picture may not have enough quality for the algorithm to work well. This is particularly likely to show bias against dark-skinned subjects, since by definition they reflect less ambient light, so you need more light on them in order to capture defining features. If the algorithm is given only low-quality input photographs, low-quality analysis is much more likely. If dark-skinned people photograph poorly in environments not designed specifically for quality imagery, then photographs of blacks will "all look alike" in the database.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Buck Wheaton, 3 Apr 2017 @ 1:45pm

    We have to evaluate the present trajectory of government as it tears the Constitutional chains away in big and little ways.

    Is there greater risk in leaving things as they are, or is their greater risk that 3/4 of the States will ratify some greater infringement to our liberties?

    Recall that the first and best limit to government is a limit on the amount it has available to spend. That is why the first order of business must be how to stop government from having access to as much money as it wants to create out of thin air and limit it only to the amount of money the voters are willing to remit in taxes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2017 @ 2:13pm

      Re:

      If 3/4 of the states ratify liberties, then that isn't infringement, that is the law of the land.

      That is kind of how the whole thing works.

      I would love to see new amendments on abortion and immigration. Let's just settle it once and for all, no more interpreting the constitution, let us just decide if we all it or not. Bring up a constitutional congress and settle it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2017 @ 5:49pm

    FBI's database is no good if Jame Comey is not on it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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