Dems, Republicans slam ‘unregulated’ facial recognition technology: ‘Time for a time out’

WASHINGTON -- In a rare show of Capitol Hill bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight Committee Tuesday voiced concern over the increasing use of unregulated facial recognition technology in law enforcement.

Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI's deputy assistant director of Criminal Justice Information Services, told the committee the Bureau has a database of 36.4 million photos composed of mug shots and pictures commonly taken for licensing or clearance purposes.

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An average of 4,000 times a month, the Bureau shares those photos with local and state law enforcement for comparison to images made available through the 50 million surveillance cameras across the country. It is accessible to roughly one in four local or state law enforcement agencies.

Del Greco said the facial recognition technology is only used in criminal investigations and is crucial to law enforcement's ability to investigate and apprehend terrorists and criminals.

A witness from the Government Accountability Office suggested the FBI may be overstating the technology's effectiveness and accuracy.

"The FBI only assessed the accuracy when users requested a list of 50 possible matches. It did not test smaller list sizes, which might have yielded different results," said GAO's Gretta Goodwin.

A National Institute of Standards and Technology draft report found the accuracy rates for black and female subjects were consistently lower than for those of white and male subjects.

Goodwin noted that in 2016, the GAO sent six recommendations to help the FBI ensure the accuracy and privacy of its facial recognition systems. But as of Tuesday's hearing, Goodwin said the Bureau had complied with only one of those recommendations.

That revelation brought the FBI a scolding at the hands of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

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"We are supposed to believe, ‘Don’t worry. Everything is just fine.’ And, we haven’t even got to the fundamentals yet. We haven’t even got to the First Amendment concerns, Fourth Amendment concerns," Jordan said.

The Transportation Security Administration has embarked on three pilot programs using facial recognition technology at New York's Kennedy Airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International, and Los Angeles International Airports.

TSA Assistant Administrator Austin Gould told the committee the program is entirely voluntary and provides an alternative means to verify a passenger’s identity at screening checkpoints. He said it also helps to speed up the screening process.

Yet, many members of Congress remain unconvinced.

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"It is time for a time out,” Jordan said at the first in a series of hearings on facial recognition.

"It's virtually unregulated," said Chairman Cummings.