- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Justice Department is being urged to rein in law enforcement’s use of facial recognition programs upon the release of a report Tuesday that says roughly half of all American adults appear in largely unregulated databases maintained by police agencies across the country.

More than 117 million American adults have their unique biometric information stored in databases at law enforcement’s disposal, including individuals who have never been accused, charged or convicted of any crime, according to the 150-page study published this week by the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown Law Center.

Described by the report’s authors as “unprecedented and highly problematic,” linked databases containing photographs acquired from driver’s licenses, government IDs and mug shots have provided federal, state and local law agencies with the images of about 48 percent of America’s adult population, according to the report.

Databases maintained by the FBI historically have included the biometric information of individuals associated with criminal activity, but those systems in recent years have been linked with the driver’s license photo databases of 16 states and counting. Following a yearlong investigation and a review of more than 100 records requests, the authors of the report wrote that these systems are highly unregulated and officially “out of control.”

“No state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police face recognition. We are not aware of any agency that requires warrants for searches or limits them to serious crimes. This has consequences,” the authors wrote.

“With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias,” said the report’s lead author, Clare Garvie, Ars Technica reported. “It’s a wild West.”

Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology is asking lawmakers to regulate these systems and establish rules and safeguards. But one of the report’s findings has prompted a coalition of civil liberties groups to demand action as well: Facial recognition systems used by police disproportionately will affect African-Americans, the report said.

The FBI’s own research has determined that facial recognition systems are less accurate when it comes to searching for individuals with darker skin, and disproportionately high arrest rates affecting the African-American community across the board means racially biased errors could become more routine as databases are increasingly interconnected, the authors say.

In response, 52 groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union wrote the Justice Department on Tuesday demanding that the systems be scrutinized.

Addressed to Vanita Gupta, the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, the letter asks the federal government to expand its probe of police practices with respect to facial recognition technology and determine if there has been a “disparate impact on communities of color.”

“Face recognition technology has enormous civil liberties implications and its use must be closely examined to ensure that it is not violating Americans’ civil rights,” the groups wrote. “We stand ready to work with you to ensure that the voices of our communities are heard in this important, ongoing national conversation.”

In a statement, the FBI told The New York Times that it “has made privacy and civil liberties integral to every decision since the inception of its use of facial recognition technology, establishing practices that protect privacy and civil liberties beyond the requirements of the law.”

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