Researchers have claimed that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been using photos of dead people, abused children, and visa applicants to test facial recognition software. The NIST has denied possessing pictures of the victims of child exploitation.

Reporter Katyanna Quach tells us more about the contentious facial data grab in The Register:

A trio of academics uncovered that NIST, part of the US government’s Department of Commerce, maintained collections of at least some of these aforementioned photos without the consent of those pictured, according to an article in Slate. NIST, for what it’s worth, insists it stores no images of exploited children: those are kept on Homeland Security servers.

The academics’ discovery was made by looking through some public datasets and submitting Freedom of Info requests. A detailed research paper is expected to be published this summer.

It’s particularly worrying since NIST runs the Facial Recognition Verification Testing (FRVT) program used to benchmark models across research and industry. Computer vision systems are judged on their ability to match an image with a particular photo in a dataset in fast and accurate manner. NIST is also in charge of developing technical federal guidelines on the reliability, robustness, and security of AI systems as part of the US government’s AI initiative.

Scraping together datasets of people’s faces is difficult. Academic researchers and engineers at companies often just swipe them from Creative Commons sources or just lift them from websites without permission. It poses serious questions when those photos are mugshots, child pornography, or people applying for American visas.

“How do we understand privacy and consent in a time when mere contact with law enforcement and national security entities is enough to enroll your face in someone’s testing?” the researchers Os Keyes, Nikki Stevens, and Jacqueline Wernimont, wrote. “How will the black community be affected by its overrepresentation in these data sets? What rights to privacy do we have when we’re boarding a plane or requesting a travel visa? What are the ethics of a system that uses child pornography as the best test of a technology?”