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.

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  1. Speaking of which:

    A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Seattle City Light from disclosing the location of FBI cameras and other surveillance equipment hidden on some of the city’s utility poles.

    U.S. District Judge Richard Jones said in a written order Monday that he reviewed classified material before issuing the order, finding that the bureau could be “irreparably injured” if the information is released. Turning over the information could damage national security or “harm important federal law enforcement operational interests as well as the personal privacy of innocent third parties.”

    In its complaint, the FBI says the city’s decision to release any information has badly damaged the relationship with the bureau, and the FBI says it is no longer telling City Light when or where it might be installing surveillance equipment, which the complaint says is routinely disguised so it won’t be recognized by passers-by or the subject of the investigation.

    I suspect the “innocent third parties” ain’t us.


    1. Just in case people don’t click through, here’s just how extensive this surveillance is.

      The FBI is not the only federal law- enforcement agency using city utility poles as a base for surveillance. The issue came to light last August when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acknowledged it has installed cameras as part of an investigation in the Central District.

    2. the FBI says it is no longer telling City Light when or where it might be installing surveillance equipment,

      Many cities have ordinances prohibiting putting anything on light or power poles. What do you want to bet the FBI is committing a crime, here?

      1. The FBI is stupid if they fool around on utility poles without a trained lineman and proper safety equipment on the job.

      2. Those ordinances (which seattle has) are for little people.

  2. are sufficiently accurate to prevent innocent people from being identified as criminal suspects.

    No one is innocent according to the State. Fuck off slavers. (I see why you guys like that last sentence, it is catchy)

  3. Nice! The FBI needs more data so that they can ignore people like Omar Mateen.

    1. Bite your tongue! With all this data, they can finally *prove* it’s not true that “they all look alike”!

      1. “That guy we have interviewed twice because kept saying strange things to people regarding terrorists and terrorism strolled into a store and asked to buy body armor and a bunch of ammunition?

        *ignores. inputs Crusty’s mug shots*

        1. They already have Crusty’s mug shots in the Sexual Predator database.

        2. He should’ve asked them to bake the ammo into a cake for his terrorist coming out party

    2. Hey, if they don’t have data on you, they can’t ignore you! So its critical that they gather data on everyone so they can achieve their goal of ignoring everyone!

      Geez. Do you even bureaucrat?

  4. 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.

    LALALALALA I AM NOT LISTENING TO YOU. We’ve got to do something. Right now!

  5. So, are we fucked or just merely screwed?


    1. Yes.

  6. Never underestimate the power of beauracrats with a mandate.

  7. If you have nothing to hide, then what are you worried about?

    1. Good question for the FBI having kept this a secret.

    2. Our enemies cannot know our methods. Remember Snowden?!?!?!?!?

    3. “Of course, the whole point of a Facial Recognition Database is lost if you keep it a *secret*! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?”

  8. Here’s where this is headed:

    In south Florida we have a bunch of license plate recognition stations up and down the coast. They clock the comings and goings of every car that passes by. So when someone is wanted, the police check to see where their car was last headed. (which can be really useful)

    Right now there is only major artery coverage, but eventually they’ll have everywhere. I thought it was just the turnpike (for billing purposes) until we had an amber alert that they tracked down using the system.

    Fast forward a couple of years and police will be using the ubiquitous camera networks in combination with facial recognition to track everyone in an urban setting, all the time.

    1. Panopticon instead of Comic Con.


  10. Libertarian moment!

  11. Shackford: I would ordinarily compliment you on your excellent alt text, but I am stunned, shocked, and outraged that you would infer that our nation’s sweetheart – and the lone reason my eyes open every morning – is not only a man, but a terrorist. Take a look at what you’ve done, because now we’ve got bad blood.

    1. Now we’ve got problems, and I don’t think the state can solve them.. they made really deep spending cuts… and now we’ve got bad blood.

  12. They promised not to abuse this system, right? Everything’s fine.

    1. “And even if we *did* abuse this system, you can use it to track us down, right? RIGHT?!”

  13. are we fucked or just merely screwed?


    1. Again, if this commenting system POS had upvotes, you sir would get an upvote.

  14. How do they deal with all the false positives and negatives?

    Seriously .. an ATM, for instance, only has to match against a limited set of faces. A false negative just pisses off the customer momentarily while they yank their card and try again. A false positive means accounts robbed and really pissed off customers.

    This here FBI database will have millions, hundreds of millions, of pictures. The only way to limit the false positives is to point out the face to follow on the screen and have the computer track that face from camera to camera. Forget trying to identify any particular random face from the entire database. You might be able to compare other faces in each scene with his contacts, but that’s a lot of faces in a crowd, varying with every frame. False negatives mean losing usefulness. False positives mean wasted resources, and if only one out of a thousand is a false positive, that could still be one new false target every minute. How many agents are you going to allocate to verify all those false positives, how long will it take, and how many more false positives will be spawned off during that research interval?

    1. True… for a minute.

      But as processing power and storage become cheaper, and other data sources become more available, and image sources become ubiquitous…. then it becomes easy to track everyone all the time.

      With the DMV and other sources for your face, plus cell data, address data, employment data, etc., most of the population will be easily matched to a continuously updated location using real-time processing. False positives are easier to avoid if I use continuity to say that WC Repair was in Austin headed into the grocery store 8 minutes ago, so I can safely ignore the 1,000 close faces around the country. With that covering 95+ percent of the faces, the system and people can focus in on assigning identities to the remainder. With a few years of tweaking and development, they should be able to quickly flag anyone entering the country illegally and showing their face in public.

      It is extremely Orwellian, but it is well within reach of current technology. It is just a matter of will power and resources to make it happen. Who knows if it can be stopped. It kinda has a feel of inevitability to it.

      1. That just shifts the burden from a “few” powerful computers scanning fastly to millions of computers scanning constantly. You’d basically end up with one scanning process for every person tracked.

        1. Right. Basically, one could imagine a system that continuously tracks 350 million faces in real time across hundreds of thousands of camera systems. Each camera would have a computer analyzing the video feed in real time, automatically identifying faces and breaking them down into mathematical descriptions.

          This data would be relayed to local processing centers that integrated all of the data from external sources (prior and near-current location data for you from credit card purchases, car locations, cell phone locations, work addresses, etc.)

          All of that would be aggregated to big regional data centers and finally to a central repository that helps coordinate the system and resolves conflicts (like multiple systems claiming to be tracking the same person at the same time). If I were building the system, I’d have an object for every person in my database and maintain a location and other metadata for that object continuously, such that a user of the system would be able to pull up my location and video footage for every person being tracked at any point.

          None of that is beyond our current capabilities. Heck, it might be a gross approximation of what the NSA is already doing for all I know. With enough coverage, the system would be able to keep you in sight almost continuously, so once you are properly identified they don’t have to worry about your image providing false positives elsewhere.

          It wouldn’t be cheap, but it could be done.

          1. The other link in the chain would be to integrate with local authorities to identify unknowns. So once you have most people identified, you could dispatch local police to provide an identity for people that show up as unknown in your system.

            Since your system would be watching your unknown female walking from the mall to the bus stop, it would be trivial to dispatch a local squad car to question her. Give it a few years and you could get the unknowns down to a few thousands plus any new immigrants that entered illegally.

            Trump supporters would love this. A computer dispatching law enforcement to pick up illegals the second they show their face on main street.

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