In order to protect the people we serve, law enforcement agencies can use facial recognition (FR) technology in a variety of ways, including preventing and detecting crime, tracking down wanted felons, protecting the weak and vulnerable, and identifying persons who are at risk of harm.
The findings of GAO’s investigation of 42 federal agencies that employ law enforcement personnel about their usage of facial recognition technology were released in June 2021. Twenty reported employing systems held by other organizations, such as local, state, and non-governmental organizations, or owning systems using their technology.
Agencies reported utilizing the technology to support a variety of tasks (such as criminal investigations) and in response to COVID-19 (such as remotely confirming a person’s identity). Following the murder of Mr. George Floyd in May 2020, six agencies reported employing the technology to capture photographs of the turmoil, rioting, or protests.
In photos of January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, three agencies claimed to have used it. Authorities claimed that photographs of alleged illegal activities were used in the searches.
The technology was reportedly used to support criminal investigations by 14 of the 42 agencies. Only one, though, had a way to monitor which personnel utilized non-federal systems. Agencies can more effectively reduce risks to themselves and the public by having a process to track the use of these systems and assess the associated risks (for example, risks linked to privacy and accuracy).
Facial recognition technology is used by federal entities that hire law enforcement agents, among other things, to support criminal investigations. For instance, the technology can assist in identifying a stranger in a photograph or video surveillance.
This statement explains
- Who owns and uses facial recognition technology,
- What kinds of activities do these agencies use the technology to support
- How closely do these agencies monitor employee use of facial recognition technology owned by non-federal entities, including any potential privacy and accuracy implications?
This assertion is based on a GAO study from June 2021 on the use of face recognition technology by federal law enforcement (GAO-21-518). In order to carry out that earlier research, GAO sent a survey questionnaire to 42 federal entities that employ law enforcement personnel.
GAO also conducted agency official interviews and reviewed pertinent documents. A sensitive report that the GAO released in April 2021 was made public in the report from June 2021. Both the June 2021 report and this statement withheld information that agencies considered to be sensitive.
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