Most U.S. executive departments are planning to expand their use of facial recognition technology, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The report—requested by members of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee amid increasing concerns about the misuse of facial recognition technology—found that 18 of 24 federal agencies surveyed, including 11 of the 15 executive departments, employed at least one facial recognition system in 2020. Ten executive departments plan to expand their use of facial recognition systems through 2023.
The report discussed federal use of facial recognition technology, ranging from the relatively mundane (employees unlocking their smartphones), to the more sophisticated and contentious, such as running criminal suspect and victim photos through commercial facial recognition systems like a controversial database compiled by the legally embattled Clearview AI.
Digital access, domestic law enforcement, and physical security are the most prevalent federal uses of facial recognition technology, with the departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice owning two-thirds of federal facial recognition systems. The government is building databases internally, utilizing commercial software, and partnering with state and local authorities to conduct facial recognition searches.
The expanding federal use of facial recognition systems has been met with widespread skepticism by privacy and civil liberties advocates, who question the technology’s accuracy and worry about its misuse. In media coverage of the report, commentators expressed concerns that federal facial recognition use may lead to improper surveillance and false arrests, exacerbated by racial and gender bias in the technology.
Scope of the Report
The report defined facial recognition as a biometric technology that “can verify or identify individuals by their faces.” It described facial recognition systems as those that detect individuals by images of their faces obtained from photos or videos, either to verify a known person or to identify an unknown person. While recognizing that facial detection (determining whether an image contains a face) and facial analysis (identifying what a face’s characteristics and activity reveal about a person) are “related to, but distinct from, facial recognition,” the report included both facial detection and analysis technologies within the umbrella of “facial recognition technology” (FRT).
The report examined two questions: how agencies used FRT in fiscal year 2020 and how agencies plan to expand their use of FRT through fiscal year 2023. The report additionally surveyed agencies’ FRT research and development activities, their use of nonfederal FRT systems, and their regulation of nonfederal use of FRT.
To compile the report, the GAO analyzed the current and planned use of facial recognition technologies by 24 federal agencies, including all 15 executive departments. The findings are the result of a 16-month audit that included surveying agencies, interviewing subject matter experts and reviewing documents to determine FRT usage across the federal government. Its findings build on a sequence of GAO reports on FRT usage, including a <…….