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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  1. 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?

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