ACLU sues for records on facial recognition use by the Department of Justice

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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Justice demanding any records on the agency’s use of facial recognition technology.

The request seeks records from the DOJ as a whole, as well as component agencies the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

The request is extensive. The organization is asking for 20 distinct sets of records ranging from any policy direction on the use facial recognition to “records relating to inquiries to companies, solicitations from companies, or meetings with companies about the purchase, piloting, or testing of face recognition, gait recognition, or voice recognition technology” and beyond. The group additionally wants any records showing the accuracy rates of the systems employed and records showing what audit work has been done to determine or assess the accuracy rate.

This news is just the latest in the ACLU’s strong ongoing opposition to the use of facial recognition technology by government entities.

The ACLU filed a similar request with the Department of Homeland Security in October 2018. In contrast to this most recent FOIA, though, which seeks information regardless of the vendor of the technology, the DHS FOIA focused on learning more about the agency’s work with Amazon’s Rekognition software.

Just last week, the ACLU and a coalition of other civil rights groups wrote letters to the three big purveyors of facial recognition technology — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — demanding in no uncertain terms that they cease doing business with government customers.

And over the summer, the group put members of Congress in the facial recognition crosshairs to see how they’d react.

While this last action — a study in which 28 sitting members of Congress were falsely identified as individuals who have been arrested for a crime — prompted some action from lawmakers, federal agencies have remained pretty quiet.

The companies developing the technology have also reacted to public criticism differently. Google, notably, has backed down from some government work, citing its new AI principles, and Microsoft has argued for proactive regulation.

Amazon, meanwhile, a company that is often the target of the ACLU’s opposition, has maintained that facial recognition is a positive and powerful tool for government. “There have always been and will always be risks with new technology capabilities,” Dr. Matt Wood, head of AI at AWS, wrote in a blog post this summer. “But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future.”

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ACLU, Amazon, artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition, FOIA, Google, Microsoft