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Federal Agencies to Increase Facial Recognition Use, GAO Finds

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report detailing the past and future uses of facial recognition technology within 24 federal agencies. The report found that nearly half plan to increase use.

camera facial recognition
Shutterstock/Scharfsinn
A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last week detailed that 10 of the 24 federal agencies surveyed plan to expand their use of facial recognition technology through FY2023.

The report defined plans to expand use in three ways: using new systems, evaluating existing systems and upgrading existing systems.

The use of this type of technology has spurred concerns about the potential biases and misidentification of people of color and transgender or nonbinary people. While local bans are being enacted, there is not yet any federal regulation of this technology.

GAO was asked to examine the extent to which federal agencies use the technology, so the office surveyed the 24 agencies of the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. The intended result was to find out how agencies have used the technology in FY2020 and how they plan to use it through FY2023.

Eighteen of the agencies surveyed reported that they used the technology for one or more services in FY2020.

The uses of this technology were characterized by distinct use categories:

  • Digital access or cybersecurity
  • Domestic law enforcement
  • Physical security
  • Border and transportation security
  • National security and defense
  • Medical assessment
  • Other

Of these categories, digital access or cybersecurity, which can be used to control access to an electronic device, is the one most used by the agencies, with 16 agencies reporting use for this purpose.

The other most common use was in domestic law enforcement. Six agencies reporting use of the technology in this category, which could include generating leads in criminal investigations or accessing commercially owned facial recognition systems to assist in identifying a missing person.

The use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement has been a controversial topic, with questions posed by experts about the potential for misuse or abuse of the tool in this space. A July 2021 GAO report predating this one examined the use of forensic technology in law enforcement specifically.

Five agencies reported using it for physical security, which could include surveilling locations for a person on a watchlist or to control access to a location.

Five of the surveyed agencies reported they did not use facial recognition technology in FY2020.

The information was collected by a questionnaire developed using information from prior GAO reports. It was sent by email and was administered from October 2020 through January 2021.
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