A slew of new contracts suggest that federal law enforcement agencies are choosing to disregard the privacy concerns associated with facial recognition. Federal agencies have signed more than 20 contracts (collectively worth more than $7 million) that seem to pertain to facial recognition in some capacity since June of 2021, reports CyberScoop; and that figure may underestimate the scope of the government’s investment due to the often ambiguous nature of government contracts with private contractors and subcontractors.
That remains true even though privacy advocates, lawmakers, and even government agencies have called for more accountability in the use of facial recognition. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 13 government agencies had not even bothered to perform a privacy and accuracy assessment before (or after) signing contracts with a private facial recognition provider. A separate GAO report showed that law enforcement had used facial recognition to track protesters after the murder of George Floyd, while the Office of Science and Technology Policy has pushed for an AI Bill of Rights that would limit the use of automated decision making tools and identification systems.
Unfortunately, those criticisms do not seem to have had any impact on decision makers in federal law enforcement. The FBI formalized its relationship with Clearview AI with a $18,000 contract on December 30, even though the controversial company is entangled in multiple privacy lawsuits in the US and has been banned in several other countries for violating domestic privacy laws. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has signed its own contract with Clearview (worth anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million), and doubled down with a separate $3.92 million contract with Trust Stamp.
“This is a case where we see that transparency isn’t enough because now we see that the FBI has a contract with Clearview but that doesn’t make anyone any safer,” said Fight for the Future Campaign Director Caitlin Seeley George.
The problem, according to some critics, is that private companies often have bigger facial recognition databases than the ones that federal agencies have access to internally. Those bigger databases are appealing to investigators, both because they generate more hits and because they allow some officers to circumnavigate formal approval channels when conducting a search.
Taken together, the new federal contracts indicate that law enforcement is unlikely to curtail its use of facial recognition voluntarily. That places an even greater burden on lawmakers at all levels of government. Facial recognition bans have now been passed in several US cities, and Congress has tabled facial recognition bills of its own. However, those Congressional bills have not yet made it through the federal legislative process.
January 11, 2022 – by Eric Weiss