House Hearing Calls for Regulation in Facial Recognition Technology

July 20, 2021 — A hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on July 13 featured a bipartisan call for federal regulation of facial recognition technology. Included among the researchers, public safety, policy, and law experts called as witnesses was Robert Williams, a man who was detained for 30 hours after facial recognition technology used by the Detroit Police falsely identified him as a shoplifting suspect.

In an opening statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said of facial recognition technology, “On the one hand, this technology is now a common-place fixture in our lives. On the other hand, most Americans have little understanding of how the police use facial recognition technologies to conduct surveillance of communities across the country, for better or for worse.”

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Homeland Security and Justice Director Gretta Goodwin, provided evidence that in fact, some federal agencies had limited understanding about what facial recognition systems were being used by employees. In a GAO survey of 42 federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers, 20 reported owning systems with facial recognition technology or using systems owned by other entities, and 14 reported using the systems for criminal investigations. But some survey respondents, when initially asked, didn’t even know for sure whether their employees used these systems.

“Agencies have not fully assessed the potential risks related to privacy and accuracy of using these systems,” said Goodwin, whose office released a report based on the findings of the survey. “To be clear, some agencies knew that employees were using certain systems. For example, agencies may have had formal agreements with states or contracts with private companies. However, many agencies had to pull their employees to answer our questions, and multiple agencies initially told us they didn’t use the technology and later changed their answers after talking with employees.”

Ranking Member Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, posed the question, “If agency leadership does not even know what systems their employees are using or whether they’re using it, how can they be sure those systems are not being misused, that the constitutional rights of American citizens are not being violated?”

Goodwin responded that a recent GAO report recommended that agencies establish an awareness of what systems are being used—particularly non-government facial recognition systems—and use that information to address privacy and accuracy concerns.

Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor and director of the Policing Project, described the use of facial recognition technology as being a “bit like the Wild West — there’s no regulation.” In further testimony, he pointed to demographic disparities in the accuracy of the technology, as well as the difficulties in obtaining fair, independent verification by humans of possible matches brought forth by the computers. “It might be possible to develop protocols and best practices…” he said, “but we have not made that happen yet. And that’s why we so desperately need regulation.”

Key points regarding the need for regulation of facial recognition technology included the reportedly disproportionate inaccuracy of the technology for people of color; the potential for confirmation bias; and privacy concerns regarding how developers build the databases utilized by the facial recognition systems.

Former DeKalb County (Georgia) Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander expressed concerns that using “questionable” technology such as facial recognition might do serious harm by continuing to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the community. “We’ve got to get the technology right, because if we don’t, it’s not going to help the cause of building those relationships,” he said.

Subcommittee Chair Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reiterated the importance of creating proper standards and certification. “Minimally, police departments need to be aware of when the technology is in their possession, and … the individuals given the authority to use it are well trained and certified,” she said.

 
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