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AI Case Study

Homeland Security tests facial recognition technology around the White House

The Department of Homeland Security has shared details of a U.S. Secret Service plan to test facial recognition technology in and around the White House for security purposes. Existing camera in the White House Complex will be used to analyse images of individuals passing by on public streets and parks in the area and cross-check them against persons of interest. To train the system and prove its usability, for now the persons of interest are volunteer staff members. The test was to begin on November 19th and carry on until August 30th, 2019, however it is not clear if the test is actually in operation.


Public And Social Sector


Project Overview

"According to the document, the Secret Service will test whether its system can identify certain volunteer staff members by scanning video feeds from existing cameras “from two separate locations on the White House Complex, and will include images of individuals passing by on public streets and parks adjacent to the White House Complex.” The ultimate goal seems to be to give the Secret Service the ability to track “subjects of interest” in public spaces.

Physical protection of the president and the White House is not only a legitimate goal but a vital one for protecting the stability of our republic. And while this pilot program seems to be a relatively narrowly defined test that does not in itself pose a significant threat to privacy, it crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks. That makes it worth pausing to ask how the agency’s use of face recognition is likely to expand — and the constitutional concerns that it raises.

We don’t exactly know how the Secret Service determines if someone is a “subject of interest.” The agency says they could be flagged through a variety of means, including “social media posts made in public forums” as well as suspicious activity reports and media reporting. Unfortunately, our government agencies have a long history of labeling people threats based on their race, religion, or political beliefs. Just last year, for example, a leaked document revealed that the FBI had prepared an intelligence assessment wrongly profiling Black activists as threats based on their race and beliefs, labeling them “Black Identity Extremists”." (ACLU)

"The test was scheduled to begin on November 19th and to end on August 30th, 2019. While it’s running, film footage with a facial match will be saved, then confirmed by human evaluators and eventually deleted. The document acknowledges that running facial recognition technology on unaware visitors could be invasive, but it notes that the White House complex is already a “highly monitored area” and people can choose to avoid visiting. We don’t know whether the test is actually in operation, however. “For operational security purposes we do not comment on the means and methods of how we conduct our protective operations,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

Secret Service agents are already given photos to identify subjects of interest, who might be chosen based on social media posts, media reports, or “reports from concerned citizens.” If facial recognition is rolled out more broadly, it will serve as an automated version of that surveillance process." (Theverge)

Reported Results

Pilot; results not yet available






In yet another step toward the normalization of facial recognition as a blanket security measure, last week the Department of Homeland Security published details of a U.S. Secret Service plan to test the use of facial recognition in and around the White House." (ACLU)



"video feeds from existing cameras “from two separate locations on the White House Complex"

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