The Federal Bureau of Investigations is facing a new lawsuit from EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) regarding the agency’s latest biometric identification system. The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is made up of fingerprints, iris scans, faceprints, and other facial recognition data. EPIC is suing regarding the FBI’s plan to include tattoos and scars in the database.
According to EPIC:
“With NGI, the FBI will expand the number of uploaded photographs and provide investigators with ‘automated facial recognition search capability.’ The FBI intends to do this by eliminating restrictions on the number of submitted photographs (including photographs that are not accompanied by tenprint fingerprints) and allowing the submission of non-facial photographs (e.g. scars or tattoos).”
“The FBI also widely disseminates this NGI data. According to the FBI’s latest NGI fact sheet, 24,510 local, state, tribal, federal and international partners submitted queries to NGI in September 2016.”
EPIC is asking a judge to force the FBI to release records about its plan to share the biometric data with the U.S. Department of Defense. EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year, but the FBI has so far refused to release the 35 pages of responsive records. EPIC and privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for cases of mistaken identity and abuse of the collected data. EPIC also argues “the FBI stated that ‘[i]ncreased collection and retention of personally identifiable information presents a correspondingly increased risk that the FBI will then be maintaining more information that might potentially be subject to loss or unauthorized use.”
Although very little is actually known about the database, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and EPIC have been able to uncover that the FBI would like to track every individual as they move from one location to another. In 2013, EPIC obtained a document that showed “NGI shall return an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time.”
“Once the collection of biometrics becomes standardized, it becomes much easier to locate and track someone across all aspects of their life. EFF believes that perfect tracking is inimical to a free society. A society in which everyone’s actions are tracked is not, in principle, free. It may be a livable society, but would not be our society.”
In 2014, EFF received documents from the FBI related to the NGI system. Based on the records, EFF estimated the facial recognition component of NGI would include as many as 52 million face images by 2015. Indeed, the danger of abuse from facial recognition programs is on the rise. Activist Post recently highlighted a new report from Georgetown Law University’s Center for Privacy and Technology that details how law enforcement is using facial recognition software without the knowledge or consent of the people. The report, “The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” examines several cases of misuse or abuse of facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition software is not the only type of surveillance tool the FBI has an interest in. The Bureau is reportedly set to sign a contract with Dataminr that will provide the feds with an upgrade to social media monitoring software. According to the Federal Business Opportunities’ official government page, the contract will provide the FBI with around 200 licenses for Dataminr’s Advanced Alerting Tool. This upgrade “will permit the FBI to search the complete Twitter firehose, in near real-time, using customizable filters.”
The FBI claims to want the social media tool for detecting and catching terrorists, but it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how this could be applied to U.S. citizens. The pursuit of facial recognition software and social media monitoring tools is just the latest step in the expanding war on privacy, which is itself a part of the eternal war on freedom. Whether privacy will exist as a concept in the near future depends on the steps the American people choose to take in the present moment.