The FBI steadily, stealthily compiled a massive facial recognition database without oversight and in disregard of federal law, according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office.
The bombshell report reveals that the FBI dipped into driver’s license photo databases from 16 states, as well as passport and visa photo databases from the State Department, feeding its facial recognition with millions of photos of Americans and foreigners who have never been accused of a crime. The FBI has access to a whopping 411.9 million images for use in facial recognition, roughly 30 million of which are mug shots.
The sheer number of photos described in the GAO report is staggering, but what’s worse is that the FBI didn’t make public disclosures about the program required by law, the report says. The GAO recommended that the FBI make several improvements to its transparency process and assess its past failures. The report instructs that the U.S. Attorney General should determine why the FBI didn’t publish legally mandated privacy assessments as it expanded its facial recognition program.
The Privacy Act requires government agencies to disclose how they harvest and use personal information like ID photos, but the GAO found that the FBI didn’t make the mandatory disclosures.
“There appears to be no internal oversight on this system and that’s remarkable,” Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, told TechCrunch. Bedoya previously worked for Senator Al Franken, the legislator who has frequently pushed for oversight of facial recognition technology and requested that the GAO audit the FBI’s use of the technology.
“Today we found out that they have no idea if they’re misusing it or not,” Bedoya said of the FBI. “They’ve literally never done an audit.”
Bedoya pointed out that many Americans don’t expect their driver’s license photos to end up in a federal law enforcement database.
The GAO report also notes that the reliability of the FBI’s facial recognition technology is virtually untested, and testing it for accuracy is complicated, given that the FBI searches several different state and federal databases for photos. Studies have consistently found facial recognition software to be faulty when identifying minorities, women and young people, and it’s probable that the FBI’s databases are susceptible to similar biases.