Senators Urge DOJ to Investigate If Use of Facial Recognition Tech Violates Federal Laws

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The senators were concerned that the use of certain forms of biometric technology could violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A group of 18 senators sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Jan. 18 raising concerns that facial recognition software could reinforce racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The senators, led by Sen. Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), stated that facial recognition software has become widely used in law enforcement in recent years.

They stated that the FBI deploys facial recognition technology through its Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation unit, which has access to over 641 million photographs.

“However, these technologies can be unreliable and inaccurate, especially with respect to race and ethnicity,” they stated in a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Jan. 18.

The senators were concerned that the use of certain forms of biometric technology could violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, noting that black people have been arrested “based on little or nothing more than an incorrect facial recognition match.”

“The law prohibits intentional discrimination as well as discriminatory effects,” the letter reads.

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“Title VI thus restricts the ability of grant recipients funded by agencies like DOJ to deploy programs or technologies that may result in discrimination.”

They cited the case of Randal Quran Reid, a resident in Georgia who was arrested and jailed for six days in 2022 on charges of retail theft in Louisiana, despite never having visited the state.

Numerous studies have indicated that facial recognition technology is “less accurate when analyzing dark-skinned faces,” the senators state.

An undated image of a man using facial recognition software at an undisclosed location. (Metropolitan Police)
An undated image of a man using facial recognition software at an undisclosed location. (Metropolitan Police)

They cited a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which found that facial recognition technology is highly likely to misidentify black, Native American, and Asian people.

“We are deeply concerned that facial recognition technology may reinforce racial bias in our criminal justice system and contribute to arrests based on faulty evidence,” the senators said.

“Errors in facial recognition technology can upend the lives of American citizens.

“Should evidence demonstrate that errors systematically discriminate against communities of color, then funding these technologies could facilitate violations of federal civil rights laws,” they added.

The senators requested the DOJ to respond to a set of questions by Feb. 29, including whether the department has analyzed the extent to which federal grant recipients are using facial recognition technology in compliance with the laws.

Rite Aid Banned From Using Facial Recognition Tech

A Rite Aid sign is displayed on the facade of a store in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)
A Rite Aid sign is displayed on the facade of a store in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

In December 2023, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned drugstore chain Rite Aid from using facial recognition for surveillance purposes for five years, citing the retailer’s “reckless” use of the technology.

In a complaint filed on Dec. 19, the FTC said the retailer deployed AI-based facial recognition technology from 2012 to 2020 to identify shoplifters but did not take “reasonable measures” to prevent harm to consumers.

The complaint states that employees acted on false positive alerts and “followed consumers around its stores, searched them, ordered them to leave, called the police to confront or remove consumers, and publicly accused them, sometimes in front of friends or family, of shoplifting.”

The FTC said that Rite Aid’s actions “disproportionately impacted people of color.”

“Rite Aid’s reckless use of facial surveillance systems left its customers facing humiliation and other harms, and its order violations put consumers’ sensitive information at risk,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.

In response, Rite Aid said the technology mentioned in the FTC’s allegations was part of a pilot program previously implemented by the company in a limited number of stores.

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