Half of All American Adults are in a Police Face Recognition Database, New Report Finds

October 18, 2016

Investigation by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law raises serious questions about privacy and civil liberties violations, particularly for African Americans

Senator Al Franken (D.-Minn.), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah), the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and a national coalition of civil liberties and civil rights organizations call for reforms, oversight

October 18, 2016 – Half of American adults – more than 117 million people – are in a law enforcement face recognition network, according to a report released today by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. The study, The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America finds that one in four law enforcement agencies can access face recognition and that its use is almost completely unregulated. The study is available at www.perpetuallineup.org, where the public can access over 17,000 pages of official documents obtained by the Center.

“Innocent people don’t belong in criminal databases,” said Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report. “By using face recognition to scan the faces on 26 states’ driver’s license and ID photos, police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up. This has never been done for fingerprints or DNA. It’s uncharted and frankly dangerous territory.”

“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight,” said Clare Garvie, a Center associate and the author who led the Center’s records requests to over 100 law enforcement agencies. “But those controls by and large don’t exist today. With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”

Of the 52 agencies that acknowledged using face recognition, only one obtained legislative approval for its use and only one agency provided evidence that it audited officers’ face recognition searches for misuse. Not one agency required warrants, and many agencies did not even require an officer to suspect someone of committing a crime before using face recognition to identify her.

The report argues that police use of face recognition will have a profound impact on African Americans. A 2012 study, co-authored by an FBI expert, found that face recognition is less accurateon African Americans, women and young people. African Americans are also likely overenrolled in mug shot-based systems as a result of racial disparities in arrest rates. Yet the report reveals that police advertise the technology as being blind to race—and that two major face recognition companies do not test for bias.

In a letter sent this morning, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and other civil rights and civil liberties organizations called on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the potential racial bias in police use of the technology.

“Face recognition systems are powerful—but they can also be biased,” the letter states. “A growing body of evidence suggests that law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities.”

Last week, the ACLU of Northern California revealed that the Baltimore Police Department used face recognition to identify individuals participating in May 2015 protests after the death of Freddie Gray.

The report spurred calls for oversight from Senator Al Franken (D.-Minn.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah), Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Now, I believe that facial recognition can be a very useful tool in the fight against crime — it can in fact help us catch violent offenders and criminals,” said Senator Franken, who held a 2012 Senate hearing on law enforcement use of face recognition.“But I’m also a firm believer that Americans have a fundamental right to privacy. So I want to ensure that this technology is accurate, transparent, and that our use of facial recognition technology appropriately balances privacy and public safety. The report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology shows that there are some concerns with how facial recognition technology is being deployed by law enforcement. I will be pressing for answers on how the government uses this technology, and exploring ways we can ensure that law enforcement strikes the right balance.”

“While facial recognition technology can be a valuable tool for catching criminals, it comes with risks to individual privacy,” said Chairman Chaffetz, who recently wrote the FBI to inquire about its use of the technology. “Safeguards must be in place to ensure its accuracy and to identify and eliminate any potential bias or deficiencies. The technology must be used in a manner consistent with our Constitutional right of protection against unwarranted government searches. Continued legislative oversight is needed to ensure proper use of this powerful emerging technology. I applaud the good work that went into preparing this significant report.”

The report proposes reforms to transform face recognition from a threat to Americans’ constitutional rights into a positive tool that can be used for high-stakes law enforcement. Among many recommendations, the report urges Congress and state legislatures to pass commonsense laws to regulate law enforcement face recognition, and recommends that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division evaluate the disparate impact of police face recognition.

“This report represents a major step in how we think about the use of face recognition technology and how it is regulated,” said Dean William M. Treanor. “This yearlong effort once again highlights the critical need to have lawyers who understand technology and are well trained in the various aspects of cyber law. Georgetown Law will continue to take a leadership role in educating our lawyers on technology policy, privacy, and criminal justice.”


The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will hold a teleconference at Noon ET / 9am PT for members of the press. The teleconference will feature the report authors, Alvaro BedoyaClare Garvie, and Jonathan Frankle, staff technologist for the Center, Neema Singh Guliani, Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sakira Cook, Counsel for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

To participate, call (877) 876-9177 (toll-free) or (785) 424-1666. Use the conference ID “Georgetown.”

Media inquiries for the authors and the Center on Privacy & Technology:

Katie Evans


(202) 661-6708 (desk)

(218) 721-2048 (mobile)


Media inquiries for the ACLU:

Gabriela Melendez


(202) 715-0826

Media inquiries for The Leadership Conference:

Scott Simpson


(202) 492-4379


Media inquiries for Sen. Franken:

Michael Dale-Stein


(202) 224-2916


Media inquiries for Chairman Chaffetz:

MJ Henshaw


(202) 225-0037


Media inquiries for Dean William Treanor:

Mimi Koumanelis


(202) 662-9519



Founded in 2014, The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law is a think tank focused on privacy and surveillance law and policy. The Center brings Georgetown Law’s legal expertise to bear on privacy debates in federal and state legislatures, regulatory agencies and the academy and trains Georgetown Law students to be leaders in privacy practice, policymaking and advocacy.