Secret Service reveals plan to test facial recognition tech at White House

Brittany A. Roston - Dec 4, 2018, 6:08pm CST
Secret Service reveals plan to test facial recognition tech at White House

The US Secret Service (USSS) plans to test facial recognition technology at the White House, the agency revealed in a newly published document. The USSS released a statement detailing its plan, which includes testing the technology on employees as a stepping stone toward potential deployment as a new security feature. The test has raised concerns among some biometric security critics.

The document is dated November 2018, but only recently came to the public’s attention. In it, the US Secret Service revealed plans to “operate a Facial Recognition Pilot (FRP) at the White House Complex in order to biometrically confirm the identity of volunteer USSS employees in public spaces around the complex.”

The employees will be used as test subjects to determine whether the facial recognition technology can be used to verify the identity of individuals. The ultimate goal is, the USSS says, it to determine whether the technology can be used to spot “subjects of interest prior to initial contact with law enforcement at the White House Complex.”

The agency’s full document goes on to explain that the FRP will take place in two different areas of the White House Complex, where some existing USSS CCTV cameras will be used as part of the facial recognition system. The cameras will record people located on the street and sidewalk. The cameras will be able to monitor faces as far away as 20 yards.

Video streams will be analyzed for facial images; those images will be compared to faces in an FRP database to find each person’s identity. Algorithms will do the hard work, ultimately providing agents with either a “match” or “no match” result for each face. All matches will be saved.

The Secret Service says it will save the match data until August 30, 2019, the pilot’s end date. At that time, the database of information will be deleted. The pilot program will focus only on USSS employees who have volunteered to be part of the project, and they have the option of withdrawing their participation at any time, the agency says.

The ACLU has expressed concerns about the test, stating that while the goal of protecting the president is vital, the pilot ultimately opens the door to “mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks.”

The test marks yet another expansion of the US government’s interest in facial recognition technology, which has also been deployed by the Customs and Border Protection at some airport gates. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently announced plans to start testing facial recognition technology as a way to verify identities in airports, as well.

The Secret Service’s document includes language that indicates the facial recognition system may eventually be put to use on public roads in Washington DC, where it would search for “subjects of interest” who are walking near the White House. What exactly makes a person a “subject of interest” wasn’t explicitly stated, and critics worry such uses could pave the way for mass surveillance.

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