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FBI grilled by law-makers on improper use of Facial Recognition Software


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American politics is often divided upon many important decisions the country should enact. From abortion and gender equality to immigration and religion, Democrats and Republicans are often rivalling to have the last word.

This was not the case though in last week’s House oversight committee hearing, where politicians unanimously criticised the FBI and called for stricter regulation of facial recognition technology, in a moment in history when it is silently and effectively spreading from law enforcement to businesses.

The data that emerged from the hearing is distressing. Approximately half of the adult population in America would have their photographs stored in the FBI facial recognition databases, allegedly for security purposes.

Of these more-than-400-million pictures, about 80% would be non-criminal entries. It has also emerged that the algorithm used to identify matches is far from accurate, with successful identification rates of 15%, and more likely to misidentify black people than white people.

"I have zero confidence in the FBI and the [Justice Department], frankly, to keep this in check," Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Massachusetts, said at the hearing.

"This is really Nazi Germany here, what we're talking about, and I see little difference in the way people are being tracked under this, just getting one wide net and getting information on all American citizens.”

Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI's deputy assistant director of criminal justice information, said that "the only information the FBI has and has collected in our database are criminal mugshot photos" but on the same hearing it has been made clear that the FBI has reciprocal agreements with 18 states, giving it access to local pictures’ databases. Allegedly,  the agency would want access to all of the rest and it sought an exemption from federal privacy laws that give Americans the right to check the accuracy of information the government has compiled about them.

Distressful indeed, especially in the Trump era. Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School, stressed that "We need to take a step back and ask: If this technology had been in place for the Boston Tea Party or the civil rights protests, what would have happened?"

With a dystopian future more closer than ever, this question remains at the centre of the debate.

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