BuzzFeed News has learned that the US House Oversight and Reform Committee is considering holding a hearing on facial recognition, which has been widely implemented across the country despite growing concerns about the technology’s potential privacy and civil rights implications.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee’s chairman, told BuzzFeed News that the committee is “of course” considering investigating facial recognition technology. But whether the committee will hold a hearing about it or not depends on how much bandwidth the subject has. “We’ve still got to gather our agenda,” Cummings said.
“This is a perfect issue for our committee to look into,” California Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who also sits on the oversight committee, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “We have a long list of issues, but this one is at the intersection of privacy, civil liberties, oversight, and the scope of this committee.”
Four members of Congress on the House Oversight Committee that BuzzFeed News reached out to — Reps. Cummings, Gomez, Peter Welch, and Ro Khanna — said there is interest within the committee in holding a hearing on facial recognition. Gomez said he had a discussion with a fifth member, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, about holding a hearing, and that Raskin was “enthusiastic.” (A spokesperson for Rep. Raskin said the congressman was out of the country.)
In the US, there are no laws currently governing the use of facial recognition, which has been implemented by federal and local law enforcement agencies, airports, retailers, and schools. There is no regulatory framework limiting the tech’s law enforcement applications. No case law or constitutional precedent upholding police use of facial recognition without a warrant exists. And courts haven’t even decided whether facial recognition constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. Reports of the technology’s inaccuracies and mistakes, meanwhile, continue to emerge.
Within the committee, other lawmakers have taken a special interest in the technology. Last July, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that Amazon’s facial recognition technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress with arrest mugshots; the false matches were disproportionately people of color. (Gomez was one of them.) Amazon’s tool — called Rekognition — is already in use or being piloted by the Orlando police department, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, and the FBI. Amazon has also aggressively pitched the tool to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, as well as other law enforcement agencies across the US.
In November, a group of seven House Democrats, including Gomez, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding details about how the tool worked — particularly about the possibility of racial bias and the general lack of policy guidelines for police already piloting the technology.
Amazon, for its part, has maintained that Rekognition has many useful applications, including finding missing children and preventing package theft. This month, the company wrote a blog post proposing a set of guidelines for facial recognition technologies that Congress could adapt; the company also claimed it had “not received a single report of misuse by law enforcement” over the software.
“Seriously? A blog post?” Gomez said. “It shows Amazon still doesn’t understand the seriousness of the debate that’s starting to emerge around this technology.” The congressman said representatives of the company met with members of his office on Jan. 24 to discuss Amazon’s facial recognition technology. But he didn’t find Amazon’s blog post to be a sufficient reply. “A lot of the questions that were posed in our letter weren’t answered,” Gomez said.
While lawmakers have not had a committee-wide conversation on the subject, other committee members have also signaled they would be supportive of investigating it.
“It’s a whole privacy issue, and surveillance issue, that is much different now that we’ve got this new technology. So it would be of concern to me, but it hadn’t been something I’d requested us to look into,” Welch, who represents Vermont, told BuzzFeed News. “My only holdback is, where does it fit in [with] all the other things that we need to do?”
For years, the Oversight Committee has been controlled by conservatives who have been largely supportive of President Donald Trump’s agenda since he took office. Now that Democrats have taken the House, they’ll be able to pursue their own investigations and are poised to be a check on the Trump administration — a priority that other issues will likely fall behind. It’s also expected to be a lively committee, given that Democrats added several prominent progressives to it, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Khanna.
“It’s really important to see what the impact is on race and gender of facial recognition technology,” Khanna, who represents California, told BuzzFeed News when asked whether he’d support the committee looking into facial recognition technology. “There have been a lot of studies to show that the technology still has implicit racial and gender bias.”
This story has been updated to clarify Rep. Raskin's response.