Privacy SOS

Biometrics, the military and the police: who is who? Where does that leave us?

The FBI and the Department of Defense are getting close to opening their giant biometrics center, where biometric data about people as diverse as Afghan villagers, Iraqi businessmen, Pakistani farmers, immigrants to the United States, and Occupy Wall Street arrestees will sit side by side. Ultimately, the FBI and the military hope to get ahold of everyone's iris scans, face images, palm prints, and voice patterns. But they've got to start somewhere, and what better place to start than with groups of people that mainstream US society sees as marginal, if they are seen as human at all?

2013: The biometrics takeover

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was very proud of the new collaboration, called the Biometrics Technology Center. In a press release, his office wrote glowingly about the project:

The joint FBI and Department of Defense (DOD) facility will serve as a center of excellence for research, development, and application of biometrics in support of national security and law enforcement. The 360,000 square-foot, four-story building will nearly double the space capacity of the existing 2,500-employee FBI CJIS Division campus.  Once completed, it will also enable the FBI to consolidate all of its biometrics operations, many of which are in satellite facilities in Fairmont, and will accommodate nearly 2,000 employees.

The $328 million dollar project a pretty big deal, and Senator Byrd wanted credit for it. The project managers aim for the center to open in 2013; it's likely not a coincidence that 2013 is also the scheduled date for the FBI's new biometrics database, Next Generation Identification, to take flight. Furthermore, the federal government under DHS has told states that they will be forced to participate in the massive biometrics gathering program "SCOMM" in 2013. 

Besides storing and sharing loads of biometric data on each of us, the Biometrics Technology Center will also serve as a research hub for the development of creepy new technologies that will enable the state to spy on us and track us as we go about our lives.

One example of such research and development is the move to produce long-range binoculars that have built-in face recognition. So maybe the next time a cop looks at you through binoculars, he'll see not only your face, but also your name and a host of other personally identifiable information on you, such as your arrest record, your last known address, and more.

And as is customary in the surveillance industrial complex, a number of private surveillance companies are getting lots of cake to help come up with novel ways of invading our privacy. For example, Mantech is collaborating with the Department of Justice to do research on tools like "Through-the-wall surveillance systems" and "Crowd behavior video analytics":

Data hungry federal agencies

The Biometrics Technology Center will boast many different inputs of biometric information about hundreds of millions of people from all over the world, possibly including you. This FBI presentation lays out some of the FBI inputs into the system:

That's the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, Next Generation Identification and the Combined DNA Index System. The former, IAFIS, aims to collect in real-time fingerprints gathered from state and local police, as well as from federal police at FBI and ICE, on all arrestees or detainees.

The second, NGI, is a broader database, covering not just criminal but also intelligence information (i.e. images of people at public demonstrations snapped from CCTV cameras or police surveillance). The third is a DNA program that harvests information from state and locals on people in their custody who have been swiped and combines that information with any other DNA data held by the federal goverment. (In other words, your spit could be in the system next to Bin Laden's.)

But that's not all. The FBI is also interested in R&D on tattoo identification, voice recognition and more:

Yeah, you read that right. The FBI is working on figuring out how to identify us by our ear shapes, our heartbeats, our hands and our scents.

Mass surveillance or freedom, police or military: we can't have both

Technology is advancing rapidly in the surveillance and biometrics fields, but woefully our laws are either stuck in the 20th century or have been degraded to allow for more surveillance and tracking. 

Only one example among literally thousands of these technologies is a new surveillance camera that can recognize 36 million faces in one second.

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These technologies in the hands of secretive and powerful government agencies, absent any legal protections against massive data collection and in the face of government programs like the Biometrics Technology Center that aim to do just that, threaten the very heart of our democratic ideals.

We are facing a dire situation in the United States as federal police become more like paramilitary organizations and the military gets more involved in policing the globe.

The "war on terror" and the "war on drugs" have enabled a situation wherein, as Stephen Graham writes, "security and military doctrine is being rapidly reimagined in ways that dramatically blur the juridical and operational separation between policing, intelligence and the military; distinctions between war and peace; and those between local, national and global operations. Increasingly, wars and associated mobilizations cease to be constrained by time and space and instead become both boundless and more or less permanent." The DOD and FBI biometrics database is a perfect example of this blurring of the lines.

We can't have both a democracy and a police state. Unfortunately, if the DOD and the FBI have their way, we will end up living this nightmare scenario, wherein every person is viewed as a potential threat to the state and to order; wherein dissent is seen as menacing and terroristic instead of a healthy expression of democratic thought; wherein the tactics and strategies of our military deployed in foreign lands and our police deployed in our domestic urban streets become indistinguishable; and wherein the biometric data of our supposed "enemies" abroad are mixed with those tens or hundreds of millions of poor, marginalized or otherwise "undesirable" people in our own country. 

That situation is the worst case scenario, and many signs suggest we are headed there. But it's not all bad — not yet.

There are signs of hope in the courts, for example in Montana, where the state Supreme Court just ruled that the government didn't have the right to track a state employee as the employee went about town.

In Montana State Fund v. Simms, two judges cited the recent Supreme Court decision in US v. Jones, writing: "We do not accept cameras that follow us all around town, monitoring and recording our every move for no purpose other than to detect and document evidence of unlawful activity….Montanans do retain expectations of privacy while in public."

But sitting on our laurels and hoping that other judges see the situation similarly isn't enough. Get involved now in the fight to take back our privacy, before it is too late.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.