Half of US Adults in Facial Recognition Databases

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

October 19, 2016

Are you an adult US citizen? Then congratulations! According to a new 150-page report (.pdf) by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, 117 million American adults are part of an unregulated “perpetual lineup” run by the police and FBI. This means that there is a roughly 50-50 chance that your photo has been scanned and as is part of a facial recognition database.

Unlike the more traditional databases used to store the DNA profiles or fingerprints of people arrested for criminal offenses or during forensic investigations, the FBI’s face recognition unit (for example) is “overwhelmingly made up of non-criminal entries”.

As Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center for Privacy & Technology, explains,

“Unless you’ve been arrested, the chances are you’re not in a criminal fingerprint database or a criminal DNA database either, yet by standing for a driver’s license photo at least 117 million adults have been enrolled in a face recognition network searched by the police or the FBI.

Around a quarter of all local and state police departments have access to extensive facial recognition databases. Police and other law enforcement organizations in over half of all states have access to such databases.

So how are these photos obtained?

  • 16 states allow the FBI or police to scan ID cards and drivers licenses using a computer algorithm.
  • At least 26 states allow police etc. to “run or request searches” which match ID photos and/or divers licences against a photo database.
  • It is common practice among many policed forces to add mugshots of people arrested to searchable biometric databases.
  • At least five major police departments “either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology that can do so, or expressed an interest in buying it.” Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago departments are included on this list.

According to the report, “roughly one in two American adults has their photos searched this way.” In addition to the sheer number of people affected, the fact that these databases do not distinguish why a photo has been included in a database is a serious cause for concern,

In the FBI face recognition database (NGI-IPS), for example, over half of all arrest records fail to indicate a final disposition. The failure of mug shot databases to separate the innocent from the guilty— and their inclusion of people arrested for peaceful civil disobedience—are serious problems that must be addressed.

Even more worrying, a number of police departments have used surveillance tools such as Geofeedia to match live footage taken by police and surveillance cameras with social media profiles. It is believed this tactic was used by the Baltimore police department to identity anti-police protesters last year.

Racial bias in facial recognition

It is argued that facial recognition systems remove racial bias because they simply match similar results in a database. The reality, however, is that people of color are disproportionately more likely to be arrested than white people. They are therefore more likely to have mugshots uploaded to police databases, even if they are innocent of any crime. As the ACLU noted in an open letter from 52 civil rights groups to the US Department of Justice,

Law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities. Face recognition systems are powerful but they can also be biased…. A prominent 2012 study, co-authored by an FBI expert, found that several leading face recognition algorithms were 5 to 10 percent less accurate on African Americans than Caucasians. Such inaccuracies raise the risk that, absent appropriate safeguards, innocent African Americans may mistakenly be placed.

So what oversight is in place?

Very little. A small number of police departments have implemented voluntary limits, such as requiring that reasonable suspicion b established before a facial recognition search can be undertaken. A few have also put accuracy testing standards in place and/or taken steps to train staff how to visually confirm matches. But, again, this is very much the minority.

  • “Maryland’s system, which includes the license photos of over two million residents, was launched in 2011. It has never been audited.
  • The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system is almost 15 years old and may be the most frequently used system in the country.
  • When asked if his office audits searches for misuse, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri replied, “No, not really.”
  • Despite assurances to Congress, the FBI has not audited use of its face recognition system, either.
  • Only nine of 52 agencies (17%) indicated that they log and audit their officers’ face recognition searches for improper use.
  • Of those, only one agency, the Michigan State Police, provided documentation showing that their audit regime was actually functional.”

According to Clare Garvie, the report’s lead author,

With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a Wild West.


The Georgetown report concludes that 411.9 million images are used by the FBI’s facial recognition database, but that most of them are of people who have committed no crime.  Beyoda describes it as “a national biometric database that is populated primarily by law abiding people.”

Unfortunately, if your face is on the FBI or a police database (and there is a very good chance it is!), there is little you can really do about it. Your best option is to support the ACLU’s campaign for strong limits on how this biometric photo data can be abused used.

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