This week, the United States Government Accountability Office ( GAO ) issued a report that raises serious questions about the reliability of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s facial recognition system for identifying potential criminal suspects. The GAO, which is considered to be the government watchdog division for the U.S. Congress, issued a report that calls into question the accuracy and privacy protections for the FBI’s “Next Generation Identification – Interstate Photo System.”
The NGI-IPS is the facial recognition system and people search database that the FBI uses to help identify people who are wanted for crimes. The NGI-IPS was made available to law enforcement agencies in April 2015, and the system currently contains around 412 million searchable images of people. The NGI-IPS facial recognition and people search system is overseen by the FBI’s “Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation” division.
The people search and image database contains over 30 million mugshots, 140 photos from passport and visa applications as well as millions of photos from driver’s licenses for 16 states. An additional 18 states are in talks with the FBI to provide people’s driver’s license data to the agency.
In addition, states like Virginia, New York, Texas, California, Michigan and Louisiana provide an additional 20 million criminal and civil photos of people for the database.
The vast majority of people in the database are not wanted for any criminal activity and have never committed any crimes.
This huge database is used by the FBI as well as state and local police to search for people who are wanted in criminal investigations. Investigators can upload pictures of people to the system and search the database to find out if a person is wanted for a crime.
According to the GAO report, the system has accuracy problems, lacks privacy protections and is not transparent enough to meet federal legal requirements. The report went on to state that the FBIs’ use of this new people search tool is much greater than previously thought.
In addition, the GAO claims the FBI isn’t conducting regular, real-world testing of the facial recognition system to determine how accurate it is. Using the system to search for people through facial recognition is believed to return a high number of false positive matches, which could falsely identify people as criminal suspects.
Although FBI officials agreed with several of the GAO findings, they claim that they do not use the facial recognition program to positively identify people as criminals; they only use the system to search for possible investigation leads. In addition, the FBI claims that their database and people search is totally in compliance with federal regulations. However, just last month, the FBI made a request that seeks to exempt their facial recognition and people search program from the Federal Privacy Act.
The GAO investigation, audit and subsequent report on the FBI’s facial recognition and people search program was requested by Senator Al Franken.