The federal government may soon be forced to take a hard look at the longstanding racial biases in facial recognition software. California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris has challenged government agencies to look at the technology, especially when it comes to employers using it to make automated decision in its hiring processes.
The software works by mapping an individual’s facial features and storing that data as a faceprint. Organizations can use the algorithm-based software to then compare a picture to that faceprint to verify a person’s identity. The software is more accurate when identifying and analyzing white males over African Americans. Additionally, up to 35 percent of images of Black women were misidentified on gender, an MIT Media Lab study found in February. It’s clear that societal biases have found their way into the software, which also set off alarms with law enforcement potentially using it to misidentify people of color as criminal suspects.
The biases have raised concerns about fairness and accountability with IBM, Microsoft and other tech companies that have created these recognition systems. These concerns have been shared with several federal agencies that are supposed to combat discrimination in everything from police searches to employment. Harris has turned her attention specifically to the FBI, Federal Trade Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC,) TechCrunch reported. She addressed how companies may potentially disqualify applicants based on biased data and facial recognition systems during recruitment.
Harris, supported by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Elisabeth Warren (D-MA), also asked the EEOC to investigate the technology’s compliance with current laws, as well as any complaints about it. They also want to know how the agency can test and monitor how companies use the technology if it becomes more mainstream.
“We request that the EEOC develop guidelines for employers on the fair use of facial analysis technologies and how this technology may violate anti-discrimination law,” the Senators said in a letter to the EEOC.
Complaints about the biased technology have spurred tech companies to work on the issue, but more must be done. With an increase in organizations, agencies and companies taking advantage of the technology, the use of the software will likely draw increased attention.