Privacy Apocalypse: FBI Facial Recognition Software

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Recently released details on sprawling FBI surveillance technology reveal another civil liberties- violating boondoggle in the making.  Obtained through a FOIA lawsuit filed by EFF, documents show that the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) Program and its Facial Recognition Software will contain 52 million images by 2015. Replacing the FBI’s fingerprint tracking a.k.a. the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), the NGI compiles bio-metric data including iris scans, palm prints, voice data, and face-recognition quality photos and links that data with all available personal information including email, home address, phone, sex, race, and date of birth.

While the FBI’s DNA database is not currently linked, there is no explicit policy preventing such a link in the future. How might this system violate civil liberties?  Let us count the ways!

The FBI already claimed that its IAFIS database was the largest biometric system on the planet with its 66 million criminal records and 25 million civil records.  NGI now includes both 46 million criminal and 4.3 million non-criminal records collected from diverse civil sources. The enormity of the database, the fact that it already includes millions of non-criminal profiles and the likelihood of mistaken identity and just plain wrong connections drawn suggests the plotline of the movie Brazil where a man is murdered by a dystopian government due to a typo.  Oops!  And this on the heels of Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force General and former director of NSA and CIA, casually commenting that “we kill people based on meta data.”

Reading the FBI’s 2008 NGI “Privacy Impact Assessment” does not offer comfort.  We are to relax because the FBI is assigning each NGI entry with a Universal Control Number which will facilitate the linking of non-criminal and criminal data.  Further, we are told, the system is now so big that mistakes are less likely and agents will be trained to understand that the database should be used as “an investigative aid and not as a means of positive identification.”

NGI Failed in the Boston Marathon Bombings

Indeed there is evidence that the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars invested in these Constitution-violating technologies don’t work.  And it’s not because the technology isn’t sufficiently invasive, it’s because the FBI is so awash in information and data of innocent people that it misses the true threats. Indeed, they seem more capable of collecting masses of data than figuring out what it all means. Take the case of the Boston marathon bombing. The FBI opened an “assesment” on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and he was put on a terror watch list. But there were so many other “assesments” opened that year and people place on watch lists, that he got lost among all the data points. But it seems like this NGI could help the FBI identify the suspects after the bomb went off, right (like on t.v.)? Wrong.

On April 17, 2013, two days after pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the marathon’s finish line, the FBI received an image of both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarneav. But the FBI was unable to identify the two suspects, despite the fact that the agency had photographs of Tamerlan, who’d been arrested for domestic violence, in its database, and that the U.S. government had spent billions of dollars on facial-recognition software meant for just such purposes. “We attempted to use the facial-recognition technology, but it didn’t work,” admits [FBI spokesman] Bresson. “I’m not sure why.”

Dubbed the ‘Privacy Apocalypse’, the NGI is a growing Orwellian nightmare and tax payer boondoggle to boot.  DDF encourages all hands on deck for this June’s FBI oversight hearing in Congress. Stay Tuned.