The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a new report that Federal law enforcement agencies need to have better awareness of the facial recognition systems that are used by their employees so they can better assess risks involving privacy and accuracy.

GAO discussed in the report “how 42 Federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers use facial recognition” tech, and recommended that 13 agencies track employees’ use of non-Federal systems, and that they assess risks related to privacy and accuracy.

“Although the accuracy of facial recognition technology has increased dramatically in recent years, risks still exist that searches will provide inaccurate results,” wrote GAO. “Some members of Congress, privacy groups, and others have expressed concerns that facial recognition technology’s higher error rates for certain demographics could result in disparate treatment, profiling, or other adverse consequences for members of these populations.”

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According to GAO, 20 agencies reported owning facial recognition technology systems or using systems owned by others; six reported using facial recognition to help identify people suspected of law violations during protests following the death of George Floyd in May 2020; three acknowledged using the technology following the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; and 14 reported using non-Federal systems.

“Fourteen of the 42 agencies reported using the technology to support criminal investigations. However, only one had a mechanism to track what non-Federal systems were used by employees,” wrote GAO. “By having a mechanism to track use of these systems and assessing the related risks (e.g., privacy and accuracy-related risks), agencies can better mitigate risks to themselves and the public.”

In June 2021, GAO made two recommendations to each of the 13 Federal agencies to implement and track non-Federal systems that are used by employees, and assess the risks of using these systems. The law enforcement agencies “generally concurred” with GAO’s recommendations, the watchdog agency said.

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.