Lawmakers alarmed by feds’ use of facial recognition


WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — For years, the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used facial recognition technology to search through millions of Americans’ driver’s license photos, hoping to find criminals and people living in the country illegally.

But that has only recently become public knowledge, and it has sparked outrage and privacy concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Now, they are calling for strict regulations over the use of biometric technology.

On Wednesday, the House of Representative’s Homeland Security Committee grilled the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service and Department of Commerce to get to the bottom of what many consider a breach of privacy and trust.

“That is potentially unlawful,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., said “Using this technology to help ICE identify undocumented immigrants doesn’t protect us from terrorism, it terrorizes hardworking families.”

“This is horrific,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, added. “There’s no statutory legislation or anything that’s giving you that authority.”

But law enforcement department heads defended the practice, noting dozens of states have signed agreements that allow it.

“Our agreement allows us to verify with them that that is a valid license and to retrieve the photo from that,” explained John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations.

Homeland Security says it’s common for law enforcement to use license databases to catch criminals and Wagner assured lawmakers the tools are being used carefully.

But more than two dozen civil rights and data privacy organizations are calling for an end to the practice. They say studies have shown that facial recognition does not always get it right, especially when it comes to women and people of color.

“It is unlikely that we will achieve a point where every single demographic is identical in performance across the board,” said Charles Romine, the director of the Information Technology Laboratory at the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But he also said the technology is right 99.7% of the time and is getting better.

Regardless, lawmakers say they are considering setting regulations to prevent potential abuse.

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