FBI, TSA use of facial recognition tech needs cleaning up, say lawmakers

In a House hearing, members of Congress say there are too many issues with how government agencies have been using the controversial technology.

Alfred Ng
Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
3 min read

The FBI needs to improve how it's using facial recognition tech, says Congress.


Congress has taken a closer look at how the government is using facial recognition technology, and it has a proposal: Fix the situation, or hit pause.

At a Tuesday hearing on facial recognition by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, lawmakers questioned how government agencies like the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration have been using the technology. The FBI faced heavy criticism for failing to meet the Government Accountability Office's recommendations on accuracy, transparency and privacy issues.

Read: TSA PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. Clear  

"They still haven't fixed the five things they were supposed to do when they started," Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio and the ranking member of the oversight committee, said at the hearing. "But we're supposed to believe 'don't worry, everything's just fine.'"

Those five recommendations about the use of facial recognition systems include publishing privacy documents, conducting privacy impact assessments, improving sample sizes in accuracy tests, testing accuracy of partners, and conducting annual reviews of accuracy.

Watch this: How San Francisco's ban could impact facial recognition tech

Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, called on the FBI to implement those recommendations as soon as possible.

"If the GAO isn't happy, I'm not happy," Meadows said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and the chairman of the oversight committee, said he'd be calling the witnesses back in the next two months to see if those improvements have been put into place.

This is the second hearing the oversight committee has had on facial recognition. At the first, lawmakers emphasized that facial recognition tech is a bipartisan concern.

At Tuesday's hearing, Congress members heard from the FBI, the TSA, the GAO and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The FBI has one of the largest facial recognition databases, accessing images from driver's licenses and passports across the country.

"Facial recognition is an investigative tool that can greatly enhance law enforcement capabilities and protect public safety," said Kimberly Del Greco, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division's Information Services branch.

The TSA uses facial recognition at airports, saying the technology speeds the check-in process, but critics have said the tech is being utilized without proper vetting or regulatory safeguards.  

At the hearing, Austin Gould, the TSA's assistant administrator on Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, said the facial recognition program has been helpful for travelers.

"The ability to increase throughput while providing more-effective passenger identification will be extremely beneficial as we continue to see increasing passenger volumes, which are growing at a rate of approximately 4% annually," Gould said.

Meadows criticized the TSA's pilot program and called for a pause to it.

Security cameras with facial recognition tech inside

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He said he'd gone through airport security screenings "more than most Americans" and that the TSA has problems that have nothing to do with facial recognition. "Until you get that right, I would suggest that you put this pilot program on hold," Meadows said.

Facial recognition is powerful technology that can quickly identify people, and it's used in security systems at places like malls, schools and airports. Researchers have pointed out that facial recognition tech can be flawed and can show race and gender bias, and civil rights advocates have argued that facial recognition threatens privacy and free speech.

San Francisco became the first city to ban government use of facial recognition. The sole federal bill proposed on the technology limits only how businesses can use it.

Lawmakers also criticized how the FBI accesses photos from states, saying the rules are outdated. In 2016, when researchers first published figures on how many photos the FBI could get ahold of, they said the bureau had access to images of more than 117 million Americans. That number has since jumped to 641 million, the GAO found.

"The laws that you're relying on were passed before facial recognition became popular," said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky. "That's a problem."

There's no official call to pause facial recognition use, but lawmakers expressed their concerns that the technology is still being used while these various issues are present.

"American citizens are being placed in jeopardy as a result of a system that is not ready for prime time," Cummings said.