Rep. Bennie Thompson: Facial Recognition Technology Resulted in False Matches for People of Color

By Melanie Arter | July 10, 2019 | 2:09pm EDT
(Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

( – Facial recognition technology can be a useful tool for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to identify and screen travelers, for instance, but Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said its proliferation across the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “raises serious questions about privacy, data security, transparency, and accuracy.”

“The American people deserve answers to those questions before the federal government rushes to deploy biometrics further,” he wrote in his opening statement.

Thompson’s committee held roundtable discussions last month “with both industry and privacy and civil liberty stakeholders about the Department of Homeland Security’s increasing use of biometric technology.”

“Stakeholders have significant concerns about the data DHS is collecting and whether the Department is safeguarding our rights appropriately. They have good reason to be concerned,” he wrote.



“Absent standards, Americans may not know when, where, or why the Department is collecting their biometrics,” Thompson warned. “People also may not know that they have the right to opt out, or how to do so. Worse yet, they may not know that biometric technology is in use, as is the case when face recognition is used to passively surveil a crowd like under the Secret Service’s pilot program.”

He noted that recent reports indicated that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “has been scanning through millions of Americans’ drivers’ license photos without their knowledge or consent.”

“These troubling reports are a stark reminder that biometric technologies should only be used for authorized purposes in a fully transparent manner. Data security is another important concern. Frankly, the Federal government does not have a great track record securing Americans’ personal data, and biometric information can be particularly sensitive,” Thompson stated.

“Unfortunately, earlier this year, a CBP subcontractor experienced a significant data breach, including traveler images, raising important questions about data security. Americans want to know that if the government collects their biometric data, they are going to keep it secure from hackers and other bad actors,” he wrote.

“Moreover, the accuracy of certain biometric technology is in question, despite advancement in recent years. Studies by highly regarded academic institutions have found facial recognition systems in particular are not as accurate for women and darker-skinned individuals,” the chairman added.

Thompson explained that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted a test last year on Amazon’s facial recognition technology, called “Rekognition.” It inaccurately matched members of Congress with the photos of people who had been arrested. Almost half of them were people of color.

“The ACLU built a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. Using Rekognition, the ACLU searched the database using pictures of every current Member of Congress. The software incorrectly matched 28 Members with individuals who had criminal records,” he stated.

“Although the misidentified members included both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and a wide range of ages, nearly 40 percent of the false matches were people of color. This is unacceptable,” he said. “It is not fair to expect certain people in our society to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the technology’s shortcomings.

“Before the government deploys these technologies further, they must be scrutinized and the American public needs to be given a chance to weigh in. Biometrics and facial recognition technology may be a useful homeland security and facilitation tool, but as with any tool it has the potential to be misused – especially if it falls into the wrong hands,” Thompson added.


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