FBI’s Facial Recognition Software Could Fail 20 Percent of the Time

  Tech trouble: The software systems aren't online yet. Tech trouble: The software systems aren't online yet.  
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Oct. 14, 2013, 6:04 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Bur­eau of In­vest­ig­a­tion’s fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy, used to identi­fy in­di­vidu­als and as­sist in in­vest­ig­a­tions, could fail one in every five times it is used, new doc­u­ments show.

A 2010 re­port re­cently made pub­lic by the Elec­tron­ic Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter through a Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quest states that the fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy “shall re­turn an in­cor­rect can­did­ate a max­im­um of 20% of the time.” When the tech­no­logy is used against a search­able re­pos­it­ory, it “shall re­turn the cor­rect can­did­ate a min­im­um of 85% of the time.”

“An in­no­cent per­son may be­come part of an in­vest­ig­a­tion be­cause the tech­no­logy isn’t com­pletely ac­cur­ate,” said Jeram­ie Scott, an at­tor­ney with EPIC who re­viewed the doc­u­ments, cit­ing the Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ings as an ex­ample. “They’re push­ing it for­ward even though the tech­no­logy isn’t ready for prime time.”

FBI of­fi­cials could not be reached for com­ment, per­haps ow­ing to the gov­ern­ment shut­down.

The num­bers pos­ted by fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware com­pare un­fa­vor­ably with oth­er iden­ti­fic­a­tion tech­niques used as part of the bur­eau’s Next Gen­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fic­a­tion pro­gram, in­clud­ing fin­ger­print­ing, which yields an ac­cur­ate match 99 per­cent of the time when comb­ing a data­base, and iris scans, which field cor­rect matches 98 per­cent of the time.

Cur­rently, no fed­er­al laws lim­it the use of fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware by private-sec­tor com­pan­ies or the gov­ern­ment, and it is used in var­ied ap­plic­a­tions, from law en­force­ment, to so­cial net­works and by mo­tor vehicle de­part­ments in sev­er­al states.

Last year, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., ex­pressed con­cern dur­ing a Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing that fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy could be used to vi­ol­ate a per­son’s pri­vacy without their know­ledge.

In terms of law en­force­ment, the fail­ure rate may un­der­mine the FBI’s in­ten­tion to use next-gen­er­a­tion tech­no­logy to identi­fy crim­in­al sus­pects be­ing sought in act­ive in­vest­ig­a­tions, Scott said.

Doc­u­ments dug up by EPIC earli­er this year re­vealed a Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment ini­ti­at­ive known as the Bio­met­ric Op­tic­al Sur­veil­lance Sys­tem that is work­ing to use com­puters and cam­er­as to quickly scan crowds and identi­fy people. Though face-scan­ning tech­no­logy has im­proved dra­mat­ic­ally in re­cent years — as demon­strated by Face­book, which for years has fea­tured an “auto-tag” fea­ture that scans up­loaded pho­tos — ac­cur­ately pulling a face from a crowd is still a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge.

Jerome Pen­d­er, who was then the deputy as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of the FBI’s crim­in­al-justice in­form­a­tion ser­vices di­vi­sion, told Con­gress last year that the bur­eau was plan­ning to up­date its 2008 Pri­vacy Im­pact As­sess­ment, which would “ad­dress all evol­u­tion­ary changes” in the use of fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy over the past sev­er­al years. But the FBI has yet to re­lease a re­vised as­sess­ment, Scott said.

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