A handful of law enforcement agencies across the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DoJ) are utilizing facial recognition technologies without requiring proper staff training to do so, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in its latest report on the technology.

GAO also noted in its Sept. 12 findings that some agencies don’t have policies specific to facial recognition technology to help protect people’s civil rights and civil liberties.

Seven law enforcement agencies at DHS and DoJ reported using facial recognition services from October 2019 through March 2022 to support criminal investigations, GAO’s 73-page report notes.

“All seven agencies initially used these services without requiring staff take facial recognition training. GAO found that six agencies had available data and cumulatively conducted about 60,000 searches when they did not have training requirements in place,” the watchdog agency said.

As of April 2023, two agencies – Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Marshals Service – began to require training.

For example, FBI officials told key internal stakeholders that certain staff must take training to use one facial recognition service. However, the GAO found that the FBI has only recommended it as a best practice. According to the report, few of these staff completed the training, and across the FBI, only 10 staff completed facial recognition training out of 196 staff people that accessed the service.

GAO also found that three of the seven agencies had policies or guidance specific to facial recognition technology that address civil rights and civil liberties. The other four agencies—three in DoJ and one in DHS – did not have such policies or guidance.

DHS has plans to finalize a department-wide policy by December 2023. DOJ has taken steps to issue a department-wide policy, but has faced delays, GAO said.

GAO made 10 recommendations to the DHS and DoJ components, including that the FBI implement a training requirement and clarify the status of its training requirement to stakeholders. GAO also recommended that DoJ develop a plan to issue a facial recognition technology policy addressing safeguards for civil rights and civil liberties.

DHS Must Overhaul Facial Rec Tech to Protect Individuals’ Info, GAO Warns

In a separate report also released by the watchdog agency on Sept. 12, GAO is urging DHS to protect the privacy of hundreds of millions of individuals whose information is in the department’s outdated biometric identity management system.

DHS’s system matches fingerprints and facial features, but the multi-billion dollar modernization of the nearly 30-year-old system – known as the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) program – is way behind schedule and costs more than estimated, GAO said.

“DHS currently uses an outdated system, implemented over 29 years ago, for providing biometric identity management services,” the GAO report reads. “The system stores over 290 million identities. In 2016, DHS initiated a multi-billion dollar program known as HART, which is intended to replace the legacy system.”

“GAO previously reported that due to several challenges, in 2017 the program breached its schedule baseline. In 2019 the program established new cost and schedule commitments with DHS leadership,” GAO wrote. “This resulted in delaying the program by 3 years.”

GAO has made nine recommendations to DHS to follow best practices when preparing HART cost and schedule estimates and implement selected privacy requirements for the system.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.