The FBI has access to nearly 412 million photos in its facial recognition system—perhaps including the one on your driver’s license. But according to a new government watchdog report, the bureau doesn’t know how error-prone the system is, or whether it enhances or hinders investigations.
Since 2011, the bureau has quietly been using this system to compare new images, such as those taken from surveillance cameras, against a large set of photos to look for a match. That set of existing images is not limited to the FBI’s own database, which includes some 30 million photos. The bureau also has access to face recognition systems used by law enforcement agencies in 16 different states, and it can tap into databases from the Department of State and the Department of Defense. And it is in negotiations with 18 other states to be able to search their databases, too.
The size of the total pool of photos the bureau can access, which was not clear until the new report from the Government Accountability Office, is shocking even to those who have been paying close attention to the FBI’s growing use of biometric data, says Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And the degree to which the FBI has access to photos in state-owned face image databases, which contain mostly driver’s license images, has Lynch and other privacy advocates concerned.
Deploying face recognition is the “logical next step” in the FBI’s use of biometrics, says Anil Jain, a professor of computer science and engineering and head of the biometrics research group at Michigan State University. The bureau already had an automatic fingerprint matching system, and adding face images to that data will lead to more reliable identification, he says. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, and facial recognition technology has improved to a point where “it makes sense to collect this additional data,” says Jain, who works closely with the Michigan state police.