Emerging Issues in Security, Security Hardware and Technology

How Federal Agencies Use Facial Recognition Tech

In a new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GOA) examines both the current and planned uses of facial recognition technology (FTC) by two dozen federal agencies.

According to the GOA, recent advancements have boosted the accuracy and use of automated FRT, making it increasingly important to understand the biometric technology’s applications across the federal government in a comprehensive way. (Notably, FTC has become a controversial issue, with many skeptics raising privacy concerns and advocates suggesting responsible use of FTC can greatly enhance security.)

At the request of Congress, the GOA surveyed 24 federal agencies to identify and describe (1) how agencies used FRT in fiscal year 2020, including any related research and development and interactions with non-federal entities, and (2) how agencies plan to expand their use of FRT through fiscal year 2023.

In response to the GAO’s survey about activities in fiscal year 2020, 18 of the 24 agencies reported using an FRT system, for one or more purposes, including:

Digital access or cybersecurity. Sixteen agencies reported using FRT for digital access or cybersecurity purposes. Of these, 14 agencies authorized personnel to use FRT to unlock their agency-issued smartphones—the most common purpose of FRT reported. Two agencies also reported testing FRT to verify identities of persons accessing government websites.

Domestic law enforcement. Six agencies reported using FRT to generate leads in criminal investigations, such as identifying a person of interest, by comparing their image against mugshots. In some cases, agencies identify crime victims, such as exploited children, by using commercial systems that compare against publicly available images, such as from social media.

Physical security. Five agencies reported using FRT to monitor or surveil locations to determine if an individual is present, such as someone on a watchlist, or to control access to a building or facility. For example, an agency used it to monitor live video for persons on watchlists and to alert security personnel to these persons without needing to memorize them.

According to the GOA, 10 agencies reported FRT-related research and development. For example, agencies reported researching FRT’s ability to identify individuals wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic and to detect image manipulation.

Furthermore, 10 agencies reported plans to expand their use of FRT through fiscal year 2023. For example, an agency plans to pilot the use of FRT to automate the identity verification process at airports for travelers.

The 24 agencies covered in the GOA report are those identified in the amended Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. They include the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, the Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Agency for International Development, General Services Administration, National Science Foundation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Personnel Management, Small Business Administration, and Social Security Administration.

The full GOA report is available here.