Everything we know about the face recognition systems the FBI and police use suggests the software has a built-in racial bias. That isn’t on purpose—it’s an artifact of how the systems are designed, and the data they are trained on. But it is problematic. Law enforcement agencies are relying more and more on such tools to aid in criminal investigations, increasing the risk that something could go wrong.
Law enforcement agencies haven’t provided many details on how they use facial recognition systems, but in June the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that the FBI has not properly tested the accuracy of its face matching system, nor that of the massive network of state-level face matching databases it can access.
And while state-of-the-art face matching systems can be nearly 95 percent accurate on mugshot databases, those photos are taken under controlled conditions with generally coöperative subjects. Images taken under less-than-ideal circumstances, like bad lighting, or that capture unusual poses and facial expressions, can lead to errors.