Surprise! FBI Has Millions of Our Photos in Facial Recognition Databases

Government report expresses concerns about accuracy, privacy, and transparency.


Facial Recognition
Igor Stevanovic / Dreamstime.com

We know of cases where people (even 8-year-old children) end up on the federal watch lists because they have names that are similar to those of suspected terrorists. Based on a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, we should maybe also start worrying about whether our faces look like those of suspected criminals or terrorists.

This new report shows that the FBI has access to hundreds of millions of images of Americans in their facial recognition databases, including those from visa and passport databases (probably not surprising) but also from the drivers' license databases of 16 states. And they've apparently been keeping the fact that they have access to all these images a secret.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains some of the consequences and dangers:

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.

As the Report points out, many of the 411.9 million face images to which FBI has access—like driver's license and passport and visa photos—were never collected for criminal or national security purposes. And yet, under agreements we've never seen between the FBI and its state and federal partners, the FBI may search these civil photos whenever it's trying to find a suspect in a crime. … [Eighteen] more states are in negotiations with the FBI to provide similar access to their driver's license databases.

The GAO study is titled—no joke here—"FBI Should Better Ensure Privacy and Accuracy." It's very useful that this study came out in the middle of a big national debate over whether to use the no-fly list or terrorist watch lists to determine who may or may not exercise their Second Amendment right to own a gun. It's a reminder that the federal government collects a whole lot of data about us, is not transparent about how it uses it, and we don't have all that much control over what they do with that information.

Read more from EFF here. Read the GAO report here. There's also a handy map showing which states have been handing over their citizens' faces to the feds:


Read more from Reason about the privacy and accuracy issues with facial recognition tools here.