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AI Case Study

FBI maintains law enforcement database searchable by facial recognition

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains a large database of over 20M facial photographs which can be searched using facial recognition. This database is used by various law enforcement agencies both inside and outside the United States.


Public And Social Sector


Project Overview

"FBI’s Next Generation Identification system (NGI) is a massive biometric data- base that includes fingerprints, iris scans, and palm prints collected from millions of individuals, not just as part of an arrest, but also for non-criminal reasons like background checks, state licensing requirements, and immigration. e-Interstate Photo System (IPS) is the part of NGI that contains photographs searchable through face recognition. Each of the biometric identifiers in NGI is linked to personal, biographic, and identifying information, and, where possible, each file includes multiple biometric identifiers. "

However, as the Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) notes, there are several concerns with such a facial recognition database. "According to the GAO report and FBI’s responses to EFF’s Freedom of Information Act requests, FBI has conducted only very limited testing to ensure the accuracy of NGI’s face recognition capabilities. Further, it has not taken any steps to determine whether the face recognition systems of its external partners—states and other federal agencies—are sufficiently accurate to prevent innocent people from being identified as criminal suspects. FBI admits its system is inaccurate, noting in its Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for the IPS that it “may not be sufficiently reliable to accurately locate other photos of the same identity, resulting in an increased percentage of misidentifications.” However, FBI has disclaimed responsibility for accuracy in its face recognition system, stating that “[t]he candidate list is an investigative lead not an identification.” Because the system is designed to provide a ranked list of candidates, FBI has stated the IPS never actually makes a “positive identification,” and “therefore, there is no false positive rate.” In fact, FBI only ensures that “the candidate will be returned in the top 50 candidates” 85 percent of the time “when the true candidate exists in the gallery.” It is unclear what happens when the “true candidate” does not exist in the gallery, however." EFF notes that the median quality of images in the database is below the recommended resolution for facial analysis and that accuracy tends to decrease with the size of the database, given how many people in a population look similar.

Additionally, the FBI has a Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services Unit which has access to a substantially larger database of over 400M images for facial recognition. "As of December 2017, FBI’s FACE Services Unit was conducting more than 7,000 searches per month".

Reported Results

"FBI collects its own data, maintains data provided by state and local agencies, and facilitates access to face recognition data for more than 23,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and around the world."



Information Technology

Data Management


"Face recognition does not work without databases of pre-collected images. e federal government and state and local law enforcement agencies are working hard to build out these databases... Instead of positively identifying an unknown person, many face recognition systems are designed to calculate a probability match score between the unknown person and specific face templates stored in the database. These systems will offer up several potential matches, ranked in order of likelihood of correct identification, instead of just returning a single result. FBI’s system works this way."



51M+ civil and criminal photographs. Some of these images (20M+) come from American states, and currently non-criminal photos are kept separate.

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