Privacy SOS

FBI driven, real-time face recognition of political demonstrators

As EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch has written, the FBI's new mega-database Next Generation Identification (NGI), together with surveillance technologies like internet-enabled binoculars and surveillance cameras, will be capable of facilitating the real-time tracking and identification of people at political rallies. The process uses face recognition software, on-the-ground surveillance and the ever-growing NGI repository of both criminal and non-criminal data, including hundreds of millions of photographs of ordinary people.

Lynch cites a 2008 Privacy Impact Assessment of NGI describing how the FBI plans to collect photos of people not accused of any crimes, including drivers license images shared through the national Interstate Photo System, photos available online via social networking sites like Facebook, and also, dangerously, photos or screen shots of people in public places taken by police or private security. Further, Lynch writes, "if you apply for any type of job that requires fingerprinting or a background check, your potential employer could require you to submit a photo to the FBI" for likely inclusion in NGI. 

The FBI says criminal and non-criminal data will be kept separate. But the database will be enabled to retrieve both at a moment's notice, and it's highly unlikely that the many government agencies who can access NGI will choose to only search for those people in the system who have criminal records. In the age of Total Information Awareness, everyone is a potential suspect.

NGI, which we've addressed extensively elsewhere on this website, is the system through which DHS' so-called "Secure Communities" program will function. A giant biometrics database aiming to be the largest in the world, NGI is being developed and built by private war firm Lockheed Martin for $1 billion. It will include biometric and personally identifiable information on hundreds of millions of people; the FBI boasts that it will be the largest biometrics database in the world.

One of the primary means of gathering this electronic data in the United States is to funnel all arrest data, including electronically submitted fingerprints, from local and state police nationwide into the NGI. "Secure Communites," or SComm, does just that, on a massive scale. Law enforcement's new 'Repository for Individuals of Special Concern,' RISC, enables local and state police collection of sprints at the scenes of crimes. Those prints will be sent to and checked against NGI, as well. The FBI has also said it will collect "palm prints" and other biometrics at "scenes of interest" — including occupy protests? 

The US Visit program, which requires that most foreigners submit biometrics to the US government upon entry at the border, is another source of material for the database. The US military also has an extensive biometrics campaign overseas; reports of widespread, blanket biometrics collection of civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq abound. Finally, State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks suggest that State has been ordering its employees to collect the biometric data of foreign officials. All of that data may very well end up in NGI, along with yours and mine.

As legislative counsel for the ACLU Chris Calabrese has said, immigration enforcement is the primary driver of surveillance and information collection about US citizens. Politicians and bureaucrats point to the need to identify undocumented people as they defend anti-democratic and privacy-invasive programs, but because authorities must check everyone's status in order to find people in the country without papers, every single person in the US is necessarily targeted by these systems. In other words, in order to identify and police one demographic, the entire population must be surveyed. And the data-hungry bureaucracies in charge of these systems, DHS and DOJ, aren't the types to delete data once they've acquired it.

Furthermore, as Lynch observes, the FBI has big plans to use NGI along with widely available surveillance technologies to enable law enforcement at all levels to monitor in real time the movements of individuals in crowds, for example at public demonstrations. Lynch writes:

For example, in a National Institute of Justice presentation (pdf, p.17) at the same 2010 biometrics conference, the agency discussed a new 3D binocular and camera that allows realtime facial acquisition and recognition at 1000 meters. The tool wirelessly transmits images to a server, which searches them against a photo database and identifies the photo's subject. As of 2010, these binoculars were already in field-testing with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Presumably, the backend technology for these binoculars could be incorporated into other tools like body-mounted video cameras or the MORIS (Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System) iPhone add-on that some police officers are already using.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.