For years the FBI has performed federal criminal background checks for employers and state governments, amassing tens of millions of biometric records on people accused of no crime. If you want to be a lawyer, teacher, or even bike messenger in many parts of the United States, you’ll need to submit your fingerprints to the FBI. Every single federal employee must submit their prints before employment. Until recently, the FBI claimed it would not search these civil prints when conducting criminal print matching; a wall between the civil and criminal fingerprint databases kept these distinct sets of information separate, the Bureau claimed. But in February 2015, that all changed—very quietly.
EFF‘s Jennifer Lynch:
The change, which the FBI revealed quietly in a February 2015 Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA), means that if you ever have your fingerprints taken for licensing or for a background check, they will most likely end up living indefinitely in the FBI’s [Next Generation Identification] database. They’ll be searched thousands of times a day by law enforcement agencies across the country—even if your prints didn’t match any criminal records when they were first submitted to the system.
This is the first time the FBI has allowed routine criminal searches of its civil fingerprint data. Although employers and certifying agencies have submitted prints to the FBI for decades, the FBI says it rarely retained these non-criminal prints. And even when it did retain prints in the past, they “were not readily accessible or searchable.” Now, not only will these prints—and the biographical data included with them—be available to any law enforcement agent who wants to look for them, they will be searched as a matter of course along with all prints collected for a clearly criminal purpose (like upon arrest or at time of booking).
This seems part of an ever-growing movement toward cataloguing information on everyone in America—and a movement that won’t end with fingerprints. With the launch of the face recognition component of NGI, employers and agencies will be able to submit a photograph along with prints as part of the standard background check. As we’ve noted before, one of FBI’s stated goals for NGI is to be able to track people as they move from one location to another. Having a robust database of face photos, built out using non-criminal records, will only make that goal even easier to achieve.
The FBI’s decision to start using civil prints in criminal investigations demonstrates that we should be very skeptical of all government efforts to collect and retain sensitive information about us. Today they say they won’t do X, Y, or Z with that information. But that can change very easily, and without many of the millions of people affected taking much notice.
Read more about the FBI’s plans to amass biometric information on all of us.