OTG joins coalition in calling for DOJ investigation of law enforcement use of face recognition technology

Today, OpenTheGovernment.org is joining a coalition of civil liberties, civil and human rights, immigrant rights, faith, digital rights and transparency organizations, in expressing concern regarding the use of face recognition technology by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The letter coincides with the release of a new report by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law (“the Georgetown report”), which highlights the civil rights concerns over the uneven impact of surveillance tools on communities of color, and calls on the FBI to be transparent about its own use of face recognition technology.

The letter calls on the DOJ Civil Rights Division (CRT) to expand ongoing investigations into the use of surveillance technologies, including face recognition technology, and to consult with and advise the FBI to examine whether the use of face recognition technologies has a disparate impact on communities of color. Importantly, it draws attention to the fact that the FBI has yet to conduct even one audit of its face recognition systems – and continues to expand the reach of its face recognition unit (FACE Services). Through this system, the FBI can access more than 30 million photos in its own database and scan the driver’s license photos of 16 states (according to a GAO report from May 2016).

The new Georgetown report highlights that by tapping into driver’s license databases, the FBI is using biometrics in a way it has never done before; building a biometric network that primarily includes information about law-abiding Americans. The report calls on the FBI to be transparent about its use of face recognition, and to “publicly and annually identify the photo databases it searches and release statistics on the number and nature of searches, arrests, and the convictions stemming from those searches, and the crimes that those searches were used to investigate.”

In June, OTG joined a coalition of organizations in calling on members of Congress to hold an oversight hearing to assess the privacy, civil liberties, and human rights issues raised by the FBI’s massive biometric database the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, which includes its face recognition data. OTG also submitted comments to the DOJ opposing the FBI’s proposal to exempt the NGI system from virtually every key provision of the Privacy Act, and calling on stronger privacy and transparency measures for the FBI’s use of face recognition technology.  

“A growing coalition of privacy, civil rights, and open government organizations continues to raise alarm over law enforcement’s use of surveillance technologies – and in this context, the FBI’s attempt to shield its own biometrics database from oversight, accountability, and transparency, is of mounting concern,” according to Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org.  “Greater oversight and transparency is urgently needed to ensure the public’s right to know about the expanding collection and use of such data.”

Read the letter here.

Additional resources:

The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America, (Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law)  

Coalition Letter to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Calling for an Investigation of the Disparate Impact of Face Recognition on Communities of Color (ACLU)

Coalition submits comments opposing FBI proposal to exempt controversial biometrics database from Privacy Act protections (OpenTheGovernment.org)

Coalition calls for hearings on FBI’s use of facial recognition and proposal to exempt biometrics database from Privacy Act protections (OpenTheGovernment.org)

Coalition expresses concern over FBI proposal to exempt biometrics database from Privacy Act protections (OpenTheGovernment.org)

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