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ACLU Sues Justice Department, FBI For Records Showing Agencies’ Use of Facial Recognition Software

The ACLU’s lawsuit is the most recent development in a growing debate over regulation of facial recognition use by law enforcement.

In the latest escalation of the debate over law enforcement use of facial recognition technology, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI on Thursday for records showing how the agencies use facial recognition software.

Arguing that the government has secretly rolled out a surveillance technology program without regulation or public knowledge, a group of ACLU attorneys asked a federal court in Massachusetts to force the agencies to release a number of documents regarding their use of the software.

That information includes how the government uses and audits the software, how officials communicate with security companies providing facial recognition capabilities and what internal guidelines that the agencies follow.

“Production of these records is important to assist the public in understanding the government’s use of highly invasive biometric identification and tracking technologies,” the attorneys wrote in their complaint. “These technologies have the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

The attorneys added that the surveillance system could permit the government to track people’s movements and associations in “ways that threaten core constitutional values.” The ACLU has been at the forefront in criticizing the accuracy and widespread use of facial recognition software, supporting efforts in California and across the country to ban its use by police departments, government agencies and private companies.

As of now, the FBI has access to more than 640 million facial photos, many of which are collected from state driver’s license databases, in a searchable database. More than 390,000 facial recognition searches have been recorded by local, state and federal investigators since 2011, The Washington Post reported.

The complaint was filed after federal agencies did not respond to records requests filed by the ACLU in January under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the attorneys.

Kade Crockford, the director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project, wrote in a blog post that the group’s concerns about facial recognition range from its higher rates of inaccuracy in identifying people of color to the government’s lack of answers about how it decides to use the tech to identify crime suspects.

“This dystopian surveillance technology threatens to fundamentally alter our free society into one where we’re treated as suspects to be tracked and monitored by the government 24/7," Crockford wrote. 

Officials representing law enforcement groups and security companies have urged regulation over outright bans of the technology. In the past month, several industry groups and police organizations sent letters to Congressional representatives outlining the history of facial recognition and potential areas for regulation, including civil liberties protections.

Regulation from Congress may be coming soon. Democratic representatives have already introduced legislation banning biometric technology from federal public housing, and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings had led several hearings about the topic earlier this year.

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