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10 US gov’t agencies to expand facial recognition tech use, GAO says

A VeriScan facial recognition tablet takes photo of airline passenger at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Sept. 6, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr)
August 25, 2021

At least 10 federal agencies plan to expand their use of facial recognition systems by 2023, according to a report released Tuesday by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report stems from a study in which 24 federal agencies were surveyed on their current and future use of facial recognition systems. Of the agencies surveyed, 18 reported using a facial recognition technology (FRT) system for one or more reasons, including digital access or cybersecurity, domestic law enforcement, physical security, border and transportation security, national security and defense, and eye-tracking.  

Looking ahead, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, State, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs all intend to grow their use of FRT by 2023. All 10 agencies are putting in place 17 different facial recognition systems, thirteen of which will be owned by the agencies, two by local law enforcement and two by Clearview AI.

“Facial recognition—a type of biometric technology—mimics how people identify or verify others by examining their faces,” the GAO report stated. “Recent advancements have increased the accuracy of automated FRT resulting in increased use across a range of applications. As the use of FRT continues to expand, it has become increasingly important to understand its use across the federal government in a comprehensive way.”

The GAO found that the majority of the systems used by the agencies are federally owned, although six systems come from commercial dealers including Clearview AI, Vigilant Solutions and Acuant FaceID.

“This important GAO report exposes the federal government’s growing reliance on face surveillance technology. Most disturbing is its use by law enforcement agencies,” said a spokesperson for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, according to MIT Technology Review. “Yet face surveillance is so invasive of privacy, so discriminatory against people of color, and so likely to trigger false arrests, that the government should not be using face surveillance at all.”

The outlet reported that the use of FRT is growing throughout all levels of government. In March, Clearview AI revealed that over 3,000 US federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies have used the company’s software.

Last week, The Intercept reported that a key database of facial recognition and eye-scan information of Afghan allies who assisted U.S. and coalition forces may now be in the hands of Taliban militants who are seeking revenge.

“We processed thousands of locals a day, had to ID, sweep for suicide vests, weapons, intel gathering, etc.” a U.S. military contractor told the Intercept. “[HIIDE] was used as a biometric ID tool to help ID locals working for the coalition.”

HIIDE devices contain such identifying information as iris scans, fingerprints and biographical information, and are linked to large centralized databases.