Facial Recognition Technology: Privacy and Accuracy Issues Related to Commercial Uses

What GAO Found

Market research and other data suggest that the market for facial recognition technology has increased in the number and types of businesses that use it since GAO’s 2015 report on the topic (GAO-15-621 ). For example, newer functions of the technology identified by stakeholders and literature included authorizing payments and tracking and monitoring attendance of students, employees, or those attending events.

Functions of Facial Recognition Technology

Accuracy. Although the accuracy of facial recognition technology has increased dramatically in recent years, differences in performance exist for certain demographic groups. National Institute of Standards and Technology tests found that facial recognition technology generally performs better on lighter-skin men and worse on darker-skin women, and does not perform as well on children and elderly adults. These differences could result in more frequent misidentification for certain demographics, such as misidentifying a shopper as a shoplifter when comparing the individual’s image against a data set of known shoplifters. There is no consensus on what causes performance differences, including physical factors (such as lighting) or factors related to the creation or operation of the technology. However, stakeholders and literature identified various methods that could help mitigate differences in performance among demographic groups.

Privacy. Stakeholders and literature identified concerns related to privacy, such as the inability of individuals to remain anonymous in public or the use of the technology without individuals’ consent. Facial recognition technology may collect or store facial images, posing varying levels of risk. Some federal and state laws and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation impose requirements on U.S. companies related to facial recognition technology. However, as we reported in 2015, there is no comprehensive federal privacy law governing the collection, use, and sale of personal information by private-sector companies. Some stakeholders, including privacy and industry groups, have developed voluntary frameworks that seek to address privacy concerns. Most of these frameworks were consistent with internationally recognized principles for protecting the privacy and security of personal information. However, U.S. companies are not required to follow these voluntary frameworks.

Why GAO Did This Study

Facial recognition technology can verify or identify an individual from a facial image. Advocacy groups and others have raised privacy concerns related to private companies’ use of the technology, as well as concerns that higher error rates among some demographic groups could lead to disparate treatment.

GAO was asked to review the commercial use of facial recognition technology and related accuracy and privacy issues. Among other issues, this report examines how companies use the technology, its accuracy and how accuracy differs across demographic groups, and how privacy issues are addressed in laws and industry practices.

GAO analyzed laws; reviewed literature and company documentation; interviewed federal agency officials; and interviewed representatives from companies, industry groups, and privacy groups. GAO also reviewed selected privacy frameworks, chosen based on expert recommendations and research.

What GAO Recommends

GAO reiterates its previous suggestion from a 2013 report ( GAO-13-663 ) that Congress consider strengthening the consumer privacy framework to reflect changes in technology and the marketplace.

For more information, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or cackleya@gao.gov.

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Through contact tracing, an infected individual’s contacts are notified and may be asked to quarantine. (In reality, some contacts may not become infected, and some of those infected may not show symptoms.) How does it work? In traditional contact tracing, public health officials begin by identifying an infected individual. They then interview the individual to identify recent contacts, ask the individual and their contacts to take containment measures, if appropriate (e.g., a 14-day quarantine for COVID-19), and coordinate any needed care and testing. Proximity tracing apps may accelerate the process by replacing the time-consuming interviews needed to identify contacts. Apps may also identify more contacts than interviews, which rely on interviewees' recall and on their being acquainted with their contacts. Public health authorities provide the apps, often using systems developed by companies or research groups. Users voluntarily download the app for their country or region and opt in to contact tracing. In the U.S., state or local public health authorities would likely implement proximity tracing apps. Proximity tracing apps detect contacts using Bluetooth, GPS, or a combination of both. Bluetooth-based apps rely on anonymous codes shared between smartphones during close encounters. These codes contain no information about location or user identity, helping safeguard privacy. The apps allow public health authorities to set a minimum time and distance threshold for someone to count as a contact. Contact tracing can be centralized or decentralized. With a centralized approach, contacts identified by the app are often saved to a government server, and an official notifies contacts of possible exposure. For a decentralized approach, contact data are typically stored on the user's device at first. When a user voluntarily reports infection, the user's codes are uploaded to a database that other app users' phones search. Users who have encountered the infected person then receive notifications through the app (see fig. 2). Figure 2. Bluetooth-based proximity tracing apps exchange information, notify contacts exposed to an infected person, and provide follow-up information. How mature is it? Traditional contact tracing is well established and has been an effective infectious disease response strategy for decades. Proximity tracing apps are relatively new and not as well established. Their contact identifications could become more accurate as developers improve app technology, for example by improving Bluetooth signal interpretation or using information from other phone sensors. Opportunities Reach more people. For accurate COVID-19 contact tracing using traditional methods, public health experts have estimated that the U.S. would require hundreds of thousands of trained contact tracers because of the large number of infections. Proximity tracing apps can expedite and automate identification and notification of the contacts, reducing this need. Faster response. Proximity tracing apps could slow the spread of disease more effectively because they can identify and notify contacts as soon as a user reports they are infected. More complete identification of contacts. Proximity tracing apps, unlike traditional contact tracing, do not require users to recall or be acquainted with people they have recently encountered. Challenges Technology. Technological limitations may lead to missed contacts or false identification of contacts. For example, GPS-based apps may not identify precise locations, and Bluetooth apps may ignore barriers preventing exposure, such as walls or protective equipment. In addition, apps may overlook exposure if two people were not in close enough proximity long enough for it to count as a contact. Adoption. Lower adoption rates make the apps less effective. In the U.S., some states may choose not to use proximity tracing apps. In addition, the public may hesitate to opt in because of concerns about privacy and uncertainty as to how the data may be used. Recent scams using fake contact tracing to steal information may also erode trust in the apps. Interoperability. Divergent app designs may lead to the inability to exchange data between apps, states, and countries, which could be a problem as travel restrictions are relaxed. Access. Proximity tracing apps require regular access to smartphones and knowledge about how to install and use apps. Some vulnerable populations, including seniors, are less likely to own smartphones and use apps, possibly affecting adoption. Policy Context and Questions Although proximity tracing apps are relatively new, they have the potential to help slow disease transmission. But policymakers will need to consider how great the benefits are likely to be, given the challenges. If policymakers decide to use proximity tracing apps, they will need to integrate them into the larger public health response and consider the following questions, among others: What steps can policymakers take to build public trust and encourage communities to support and use proximity tracing apps, and mitigate lack of adoption by some populations? What legal, procedural, privacy, security, and technical safeguards could protect data collected through proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to improve coordination of contact tracing efforts across local, state, and international jurisdictions? What can policymakers do to expedite testing and communication of test results to maximize the benefits of proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to ensure that contact identification is accurate and that its criteria are based on scientific evidence? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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