At least 18 federal agencies reported using facial recognition technology (FRT) over the last year and most said they plan to expand their use of it over the next few years, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“It’s becoming increasingly important to get a more comprehensive understanding of the use of facial recognition technology across federal agencies,” said Candice Wright, a Director in GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics Team. “There’s certainly been a lot of advancements recently with facial recognition technology. It has been increasingly used for a range of purposes in both the commercial and government sectors.”

The latest GAO report on the use of the technology said it surveyed 24 federal agencies and 18 reported using it for one or more purposes.

The most common use was digital access or cybersecurity, reported to be used by 16 of the agencies.

Among those, 14 said they use it to allow employees to unlock their agency-issued smartphones.

Domestic law enforcement was another common use, with six agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Defense (DOD) using FRT for this need.

“This purpose includes FRT that can be used to identify a lead or person of interest in an investigation, or to locate or identify a missing person or crime victim,” the report said.

The report also said some agencies are using it to match images with those found on social media.

“DHS, DOJ, HHS, and the Interior reported using Clearview AI, a commercially owned facial recognition system that compares a submitted photo against a database of publicly available images from open sources, such as social media, and returns matching images for review,” the report said.

It’s leading to questions about privacy concerns.

“There’s a risk that folks who have not committed any crime and are not under suspicion will get swept into surveillance under facial recognition,” said Jake Weiner, a Law Fellow with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “If there’s going to be access to this technology, then the government needs a really robust way to track it and to limit it to a purpose that is appropriate.”

EPIC also points to concerns about accuracy, particularly when identifying women of color.

“There are problems with accuracy that create privacy concerns,” said Weiner. “We’ve seen a myriad of stories of abuses of facial recognition. It being used to identify protesters, being used by law enforcement to help corporations identify folks.”

According to the report, ten agencies also reported using FRT for research and development including researching the FRT’s ability to identify people wearing masks during the pandemic.

The GAO said its work looking into the use of FRT by government agencies is on-going.

“There’s probably a need to get a better understanding of how agencies are monitoring the use of the data that they are collecting, who can access the data that they’re sharing, how is that data being shared,” said Wright.

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