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ACLU Sues DOJ Over Facial Recognition Documents

Published: November 6, 2019
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Source: Tech Dirt

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

It's no secret the federal government is using facial recognition tech. The DHS wants to use it at all ports of entry (including airports) on pretty much every traveler. Amazon wants every government agency possible to buy its version of the tech, even as the company (and the agencies it hopes to supply) undergo Congressional investigations. And the FBI's facial recognition database has been growing steadily since 2014, outpacing required Privacy Impact Assessments and the FBI's willingness to vet the accuracy of its search tools.

The public would definitely like to know more about the government's use of biometric tracking, but the government's way less interested in talking about it. The ACLU filed a FOIA request in January seeking biometric/facial recognition documents held by the FBI and DEA. Those requests have been ignored for 10 months.

The ACLU is now suing these federal agencies. The feds' deafening silence echoes against a backdrop of enacted facial recognition bans in a handful of cities and one statewide ban on use of the tech in police body cameras. The lawsuit [PDF] points out both agencies refused to give the ACLU's request expedited processing and the DEA went so far as to grant itself a 10-day extension to respond. That 10-day period stretched into 60 days before the DEA sent its second response -- one that stated none-too-believably that the ACLU's request was "being handled as expeditiously as possible."

The complaint asks for a judge to order the immediate release of responsive records, an injunction preventing the agencies from charging the ACLU processing fees, and attorney fees in the event the ACLU wins its suit.

The attached FOIA request shows how much information is already in the public domain, which will make it very difficult for the feds to claim they don't have responsive documents. Facial recognition is the government's new kudzu. It's everywhere and it just keeps growing.

The FBI… operates the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System, which a 2016 Government Accountability Office report described as “a face recognition service that allows law enforcement agencies to search a database of over 30 million photos to support criminal investigations.”


Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides cloud services for all 17 United States intelligence agencies, including the DOJ and its component agencies the FBI and DEA.5 According to recent media reporting, the FBI is testing Amazon’s Rekognition face recognition product, which is part of the suite of software products available on AWS, in a pilot program. In May 2018, the intelligence community awarded Microsoft a contract enabling all 17 agencies to use Azure Government, Microsoft’s cloud service for public entities. Microsoft, like Amazon, offers its customers a face surveillance product that runs on its own cloud service; Microsoft’s face surveillance product is called Face API. Additionally, as of 2015, the FBI has utilized NEC Corporation of America’s “Integra ID 5 biometric solution software,” which provides facial recognition capabilities, in conjunction with the agency’s NGI system.

Hopefully, the ACLU will succeed. Public records requests are pretty much the only way the public can access details about the government's surveillance plans and tech tools. The FBI and DEA aren't willing to discuss these openly but they're more than willing to deploy them against the same public these agencies insist have no business asking what the government's up to.

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