The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is emphasizing the need for transparency in government facial recognition programs. To that end, the organization has published a new report that tracks the use of facial recognition across multiple federal and state-level agencies.
In terms of raw numbers, the GAO reported that 75 percent (18 of 24) of the federal agencies surveyed were already using facial recognition technology in 2020. Most of those agencies were simply using the tech for internal access control, though law enforcement agencies were also using the technology to advance their investigations.
Unfortunately, many of the organizations in the latter category did not exercise much oversight over their programs. For example, the GAO found that 13 of the 14 law enforcement agencies that were using facial recognition in another survey (of a total pool of 42) did not monitor employee use of commercial and state-level facial recognition systems. As a result, individual officers had unregulated access to powerful identification tools, and in some cases were performing thousands of unauthorized searches.
The GAO noted that that lack of oversight raises significant privacy concerns, and could make agencies culpable for violations of federal privacy law. With that in mind, the GAO has advised agencies to track the use of facial recognition systems, and to conduct impact assessments to gain a better sense of the privacy risks. The organization claimed that agencies were largely receptive to that feedback, though only three have followed through with a tracking system and none have completed their risk assessment.
The GAO previously singled out US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in another report. The oversight agency noted that CBP does have some privacy protections in place, but warned that it has been lax with audits to ensure that those policies are being followed. In that regard, CBP had only audited one of its 20 commercial airline partners at the time of the report. CBP has audited several airlines since then, but has yet to make it through the full list.
The report underscores the challenges that regulators will face when it comes to facial recognition legislation. Lawmakers can pass privacy laws, but those laws will have a minimal effect if agencies are not concerned about enforcement.
On that front, the GAO has previously noted that several agencies had signed contracts with Clearview AI, which infamously handed out free trials to law enforcement officers to circumvent traditional oversight channels. The GAO also noted that 10 agencies are actively researching new applications of facial recognition technology, or trying to improve the accuracy of existing utilities.
July 1, 2022 – by Eric Weiss