By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fifty civil rights groups signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday to investigate police use of facial-recognition databases, arguing the technology disproportionately affects minorities and has minimal oversight.
The request coincides with the release of a law school's report concluding half of America's adults have their images stored in at least one searchable facial-recognition database used by local, state and federal authorities and amid concern about law enforcement's use of force against black men.
Facial-recognition databases are used by police to help identify criminal suspects. They typically work by conducting searches of vast troves of known images, such as mug shots, and algorithmically comparing them with other images, such as those taken form a store's surveillance cameras, that capture an unidentified person believed to be committing a crime.
Use of face recognition "is rapidly being interconnected with everyday police activities, impacting virtually every jurisdiction in America," the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in the letter.
"Yet, the safeguards to ensure this technology is being used fairly and responsibly appear to be virtually nonexistent," it said.
The Justice Department deferred to the FBI for comment, which did not immediately respond.
Because blacks are disproportionately arrested and subjected to mug shot photos, they are more likely than other groups to have their images stored and scanned in facial-recognition databases used to search for criminal suspects, according to a 150-page report released Tuesday by the Center for Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University law school.
Those databases are not regularly audited by authorities for accuracy and seldom have images of innocent people expunged, meaning that black Americans are more likely to be identified as suspects for crimes, including those they may have not committed, the report, titled "Perpetual Line-Up," concluded.
The report found that states rely on mug shots, driver's-license photos, or both in assembling their databases, and that images are often shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
It also warned that the technology could be used to limit free speech, as only one of 52 agencies tracked had a policy in place to expressly forbid its use to track people engaging in political or religious speech.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by Grant McCool)