- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has quietly begun testing facial recognition technology near the White House, drawing fire from the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday over its potential for abuse.

U.S. Secret Service (USSS) launched the pilot program last month “to identify if facial recognition technologies can be of assistance to the USSS in identifying known subjects of interest prior to initial contact with law enforcement at the White House,” DHS explained in a document outlining the effort.

Secret Service members currently rely on photographs to identify persons of interest, and the pilot program will gauge whether they would benefit from using a system of surveillance cameras and algorithms as well, according to the Nov. 26 privacy impact assessment.

“The USSS believes that deploying facial recognition technology will allow USSS law enforcement personnel to conduct a facial comparison prior to interaction or engagement,” DHS wrote in the document.

Using video streams captured by existing closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, the pilot program is meant to automatically identify certain people by comparing the faces of individuals caught on camera with images stored in a database.

“The identified facial images will be queried using facial recognition algorithms against the gallery of photos of USSS volunteers used in the pilot,” DHS said in the document. “The collection of volunteer subject data will assist USSS in testing the ability of facial recognition technology to identify known individuals and to determine if biometric technology can be incorporated into the continuously evolving security plan at the White House Complex.”

While the pilot program is designed to match surveillance footage against a database containing the images of only Secret Service volunteers, anyone captured by one of the cameras risks having their biometric data fed into the algorithm, DHS acknowledged.

“Individuals passing the cameras involved in the pilot will not be able to opt out of having their faces run against the facial recognition algorithm. However, individuals who do not wish to be captured by White House Complex CCTV and cameras involved in this pilot may choose to avoid the area,” DHS said in the privacy assessment.

The streams being used in the pilot program are pulled from cameras capable of recording facial data from 20 yards away, according to DHS. The program will use two streams from separate locations on the White House complex, “and will include images of individuals passing by on public streets and parks adjacent to the White House,” the agency said.

DHS began the program on Nov. 19, but the effort went largely unnoticed until the ACLU raised concerns Tuesday.

“While this pilot program seems to be a relatively narrowly defined test that does not in itself pose a significant threat to privacy, it crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote in a blog post.

“The program is another blinking red light for policymakers in the face of powerful surveillance technologies that will present enormous temptations for abuse and overuse. Congress should demand answers about this new program and the government’s other uses of face recognition. And it should intercede to stop the use of this technology unless it can be deployed without compromising fundamental liberties,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Secret Service declined to comment when asked about the ACLU’s concerns.

“For operational security purposes we do not comment on the means and methods of how we conduct our protective operations,” a Secret Service spokesperson told The Washington Times.

The pilot program is scheduled to run through Aug. 30, 2019, at which point DHS said it plans on deleting all collected facial images.


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