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‘No limits’ facial recognition presents huge privacy threat

Face, United States flag

by Sam Rolley

A recent congressional hearing on the proliferation of the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement revealed that the U.S. surveillance state is quickly growing out of control.

According to facts presented during the hearing, right around half of all Americans already have their images stored in FBI facial-recognition databases. Shockingly, about 80 percent of the photos in the government database are of non-criminals, gathered from driver license and passport databases.

Currently, there is no federal law dictating how law enforcement can use the vast trove of facial recognition assets during the course of investigation.

Currently, there is no federal law dictating how law enforcement can use the vast trove of facial recognition assets during the course of investigation.

And the privacy problem extends beyond facial recognition, according to testimony from Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch.

From her remarks:

The FBI’s Next Generation Identification system (NGI) is a massive biometric database that includes fingerprints, iris scans, and palm prints collected from individuals not just during arrests, but also from millions of Americans and others for non-criminal reasons like background checks, state licensing requirements, and immigration, The Interstate Photo System (IPS) is the part of NGI that contains images like mug shots and non-criminal photographs that are searchable through face recognition. Each of these biometric identifiers is linked to personal, biographic, and identifying information, and, where possible, each file includes multiple biometric identifiers. FBI has designed NGI to be able to expand in the future as needed to include “emerging biometrics,” such as footprint and hand geometry, gait recognition, and others.

In other words, despite lacking governance, law enforcement officials are only poised to increase their ability to build biomarker databases capable of tracking millions of innocent Americans.

Supporters of the FBI’s biometric advancements argue that facial recognition and related technologies make it easier for investigators to solve crimes quickly. But there are serious questions about the accuracy of the systems.

One damning GAO report found that algorithms used to sort through the government’s massive trove of biometric data are only right about 15 percent of the time.

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

For privacy advocates like Lynch, that means now is the time for Congress to begin placing serious checks on how the biometric information is used for investigatory purposes.

“We don’t yet appear to be at point where face recognition is being used broadly to monitor the public, we are at a stage where the government is building out the databases to make that monitoring possible,” Lynch said.

Lawmakers must act before “we reach a point of no return,” the privacy advocate warned.

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