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The US Secret Service Plans To Test Facial Recognition In And Around The White House

A government document, published last week, describes how the Secret Service will scan video feeds and images of individuals passing by on public streets and parks near the White House.

Last updated on December 4, 2018, at 4:20 p.m. ET

Posted on December 4, 2018, at 3:10 p.m. ET

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The US Secret Service quietly announced a plan to test the use of facial recognition technology in and around the White House, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a blog post on Tuesday as part of its ongoing reporting on facial recognition and civil rights concerns surrounding the technology.

The document, published last week by the Department of Homeland Security, says the Secret Service plans to use footage from the White House’s closed-circuit television system and test whether its system can identify certain volunteer Secret Service staff members, by scanning video feeds from cameras placed in "two separate areas of the White House Complex." The cameras, the document says, "capture video from individuals on the sidewalk and street."

It is not yet clear whether the pilot is already operational, but according to the Department of Homeland Security document, "phase one" of the initiative began on Nov. 19, 2018, and the pilot would end on Aug. 30, 2019 — at which time the facial images captured by the system would be deleted.

"This pilot program ... crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks," Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, wrote in the blog post. "That makes it worth pausing to ask how the agency’s use of face recognition is likely to expand — and the constitutional concerns that it raises."

The ultimate goal appears to be to give the Secret Service the ability to track "subjects of interest" in public spaces. But, the ACLU noted, the government has not laid out a clear definition of how the Secret Service determines who qualifies as a subject of interest.

"For operational security purposes we do not comment on the means and methods of how we conduct our protective operations," a US Secret Service spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email.

The move falls in line with the increasing use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and the broader government in general. Last week, a group of seven House Democrats sent a third letter to one of the most public providers of facial recognition technology, the tech giant Amazon, demanding details about the technology's accuracy and potential racial bias. (To be clear, Amazon does not appear to be involved in the US Secret Service's pilot.) The US Customs and Border Protection has also deployed the tech at airport gates, ostensibly to detect visa overstays and for national security, and the Transportation Security Administration has an upcoming plan to roll out the tech even more broadly at airports.

Yet Congress has never explicitly authorized the use of facial recognition technology on American citizens, according to an in-depth report by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology. And the technology is still plagued by inaccuracies; an ACLU test of Amazon Rekognition in May, for example, showed that the technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress with arrest mugshots — and the false matches were disproportionately people of color.

"Unfortunately, our government agencies have a long history of labeling people threats based on their race, religion, or political beliefs," Stanley said. The group is concerned now that use of the technology to surveil the surrounding areas of the White House may clamp down on protests in the area. In Maryland, police already demonstrated their willingness to use facial recognition tech to monitor protesters during the unrest and rioting in Baltimore in 2015.

House Democrats wrote in their letter last week that while facial recognition technology may one day serve as a useful tool for law enforcement, "At this time, we have serious concerns that this type of product has significant accuracy issues, places disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment rights in public.”

UPDATE

This post has been updated with a response from the US Secret Service.

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