Investigating the Use of Facial Recognition: A Joint Project with MuckRock

Across the country, facial recognition technology is being quietly acquired and used by government agencies of all sizes. More than half of all adults in the United States are in at least one database used for facial recognition, according to an estimate from the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. The full extent of police departments and agencies accessing or using the technology remains unknown.

MuckRock and Open the Government want to change that.

We have sent dozens of FOIA requests to police departments to learn more about their acquisition of the technology. But we believe this is a team effort, one that requires community action and interest. That’s why we’re trying to make it easier for individuals to learn more and contribute to our project, Police Surveillance: Facial Recognition Use in Your Backyard, to track and investigate the proliferation of this technology.

We’re inviting you to join this work.

Why this matters

Calls to ban and regulate the use of facial recognition technology have amplified over the last few years. Members of Congress are currently proposing a moratorium on acquisition or use. Four cities have already passed a total ban on its use citing various concerns, including documented racial bias, its impact on civil liberties, and the inaccuracy of the programs. Additionally, the quiet proliferation of the technology calls into question the informed regulation by elected officials.

There remain significant concerns about how police departments implement facial recognition technology and comply with public records laws. Of the 113 requests we sent out, nearly a quarter of departments are still processing our initial request for records.

We need your help to continue our investigation.

The Policing Facial Recognition Project Page

Accountability begins at home, and to help you learn whether your local city is using facial recognition, we have prepared a FOIA guide on how to investigate its use.

This lives on our freshly-minted Police Surveillance: Facial Recognition Use in Your Backyard along with all of the requests we’ve filed so far. Public records requests may need to be sent to the local Department of Motor Vehicles, through an agency such as the state police, or to your local police department. You are welcome to clone our requests and send us updates along the way. On the project page, you can learn when our readers have filed new requests, see if anyone has asked us to file on their behalf, and read about the latest findings in our search.

We found some states, such as Hawaii and Ohio, run their own state-wide facial recognition programs.

Other agencies, like Clackamas County in Oregon, began experimenting with running scans against partner agencies using Amazon’s Rekognition technology, despite their public information officer claiming earlier this year: “The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office does not currently have a [Memorandum of Understanding] MOU or policy in regards to data sharing agreements or data storage or data retention between our agency and Washington County.”

The Albuquerque Police sent us a copy of their facial recognition policy but no invoices of it acquiring the technology. Bizarrely, Lubbock Police Department sent us the login username and password for at least one of their officers in response to our request. (After being contacted by MuckRock News, the Lubbock Police Department confirmed the username was no longer an active credential; it has since been redacted online).

What next?

Take a look at the “Police Surveillance” project, learn how to file your own FOI request, and let us know if you find anything or email us if you’d like us to file on your behalf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 from MuckRock News.

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