The FBI has been steadily amassing fingerprints, face images, voiceprints, iris scans, palm prints, and other biometric identifiers on tens of millions of people, pouring these sensitive records into the world’s largest biometric database, known as Next Generation Identification (NGI). Many of these records come from police and sheriffs departments nationwide, but others come from people never charged with—let alone convicted of—a crime. Despite the danger such a database poses to the privacy and well being of the tens of millions of people caught up in the FBI’s biometric dragnet, the Obama administration has exempted the database from Privacy Act requirements that it be accurate, up to date, and transparent. Worse still, the FBI has entered into a secret agreement with the Department of Defense, presumably to grant the military access to some or all of the data.
In an attempt to pry the agreement out of the FBI’s hands, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy group, has filed suit.
“The FBI Director has shown a ‘reckless disregard’ for the privacy rights of Americans,” said Marc Rotenberg, President of EPIC. “Operating in secret, Director Comey has built a massive biometric database that places the privacy of all Americans at risk. And he has removed Privacy Act safeguards intended to ensure accuracy and accountability for the record system.”
From EPIC’s press release, announcing the lawsuit:
EPIC is seeking records pertaining to a memoranda of understanding between the FBI and DOD relating to biometric data transfers. EPIC sought these documents in a Freedom of Information Act request in April 2015. The FBI acknowledged receipt of the request but failed to provide the documents requested. EPIC then filed an administrative appeal. In September 2015, the FBI acknowledged that 35 pages of responsive records were located, but none of the records were released to EPIC. The Bureau said it had to consult with other agencies before releasing any records.
It’s awfully difficult to hold government agencies accountable for their secretive surveillance programs when they refuse to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Good luck to EPIC in its suit; we’ll be eagerly awaiting its result.