Privacy SOS

Coming soon: FBI technology that can read your fingerprints from a mile away


The federal government is close to approving contactless fingerprinting, NextGov reports:

Within a year, technology capable of fingerprinting agency employees by merely photographing a hand wave is expected to get the OK from the government, according to federal and industry officials.

So-called contactless fingerprinting is faster and more hygienic than ink and paper or digital touchpads, proponents say. At the same time, the idea of agencies collecting biometric data without physical contact has sparked some concerns about too-easy surveillance.

Today, biometrics company MorphoTrak is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the FBI to certify a touchless system for taking prints suitable for employee ID badges. More than 72 percent of computer users governmentwide now need biometric smart cards to access agency systems, in the wake of the Office of Personnel Management breach.

The FBI is very excited about the prospect of contactless fingerprinting, and it’s possible that TSA will try to implement it at airports to move people through security checkpoints faster, the website reports. What’s the problem here?

A few things. First, this move is yet another shift away from identification technologies that require physical contact to identification systems capable of capturing and cataloging individuals from afar. The two big ones besides contactless prints are iris scanning and face recognition. The dangers here are obvious. In a world wherein governments and corporations can remotely identify thousands of people without ever physically touching them, anonymity is history. Think about the battles we are fighting against mass incarceration and racist policing. Now imagine that police have the ability to track and identify people anywhere in a city from the comfort of their iPhones.

Second, the development of all of these biometric tracking and monitoring systems come at a cost to taxpayers. The money the feds are spending trying to figure out how better to track and monitor people—including people never suspected of any serious crimes—could be spent building roads, trains, and hospitals, or funding education, health care, and climate research.

Scientists and engineers might be interested in solving our biggest problems, namely how to continue living on this planet given the rapid rate at which we are making our climate uninhabitable for human life. But scientists, like the rest of us, need to eat. Unfortunately, federal scientific research funding too often encourages the development of technologies and processes whose utility is debatable at best, and dystopian at worst. Think of it this way: What would you rather have, a functional public transit system in a city robustly preparing for an alternate energy future, or an FBI agent tracking your face through a crowd?

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.