Today the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) finally published its exhaustive report on the FBI’s face recognition capabilities. The takeaway: FBI has access to hundreds of millions more photos than we ever thought. And the Bureau has been hiding this fact from the public—in flagrant violation of federal law and agency policy—for years.
According to the GAO Report, FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services unit not only has access to FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) face recognition database of nearly 30 million civil and criminal mug shot photos, it also has access to the State Department’s Visa and Passport databases, the Defense Department’s biometric database, and the drivers license databases of at least 16 states. Totaling 411.9 million images, this is an unprecedented number of photographs, most of which are of Americans and foreigners who have committed no crimes.
The FBI has done little to make sure that its search results (which the Bureau calls “investigative leads”) do not include photos of innocent people, according to the report. The FBI has conducted only very limited testing to ensure the accuracy of NGI’s face recognition capabilities. And it has not taken any steps to determine whether the face recognition systems of its external partners—states and other federal agencies—are sufficiently accurate to prevent innocent people from being identified as criminal suspects. As we know from previous research, face recognition is notoriously inaccurate across the board and may also misidentify African Americans and ethnic minorities, young people, and women at higher rates than whites, older people, and men, respectively.
The Associated Press sued the U.S. Department of Justice Thursday over the FBI’s failure to provide public records related to the creation of a fake news story used to plant surveillance software on a suspect’s computer.
AP joined with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
At issue is a 2014 Freedom of Information request seeking documents related to the FBI’s decision to send a web link to the fake article to a 15-year-old boy suspected of making bomb threats to a high school near Olympia, Washington. The link enabled the FBI to infect the suspect’s computer with software that revealed its location and Internet address.
AP strongly objected to the ruse, which was uncovered last year in documents obtained through a separate FOIA request made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“The FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in a 2014 letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
“It is improper and inconsistent with a free press for government personnel to masquerade as The Associated Press or any other news organization,” Kaiser wrote. “The FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation.”