Privacy SOS

Your tattoos, selfies, and iris scans may soon be the property of the FBI

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That selfie you just posted to Instagram might end up in the FBI’s brand new face recognition database, searchable by your local law enforcement agency. Other things the federal government wants to put in that database include photos of your tattoos, an image of your iris, details about how you walk, your DNA, and a recording of your voice, among other unique identifiers. It’s all part of the FBI, DHS, and Department of Defense’s plan to know everything there is to know about our physical bodies. This isn't your grandparents' fingerprint technology.

On September 15, 2014 the FBI announced its national biometrics operation was open for business:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division announced today the achievement of full operational capability of the Next Generation Identification (NGI) System. The FBI’s NGI System was developed to expand the Bureau’s biometric identification capabilities, ultimately replacing the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) in addition to adding new services and capabilities.

Next Generation Identification cost at least $1 billion, which went to war and surveillance contractor Lockheed Martin. A few years ago the FBI estimated it had about 50 million face recognition ready images—known as “face prints”—of Americans ready for searching. The bureau wants you to think all of those people are scary criminals. But in fact, while most of them are people who have been arrested—read: not convicted—many of them are people accused of no crime: federal employees, people who have applied for federal background checks to get jobs, and others.

Who are those others? The FBI isn’t saying, but the last publicly available privacy assessment of its massive biometrics overhaul suggests they could easily be you, me, and everyone we know. There’s nothing in the document that says the FBI can’t or won’t harvest photos from surveillance cameras, news images, or the internet. In related news, Facebook has a database containing at least 90 billion photographs, to which it adds 200 million every day.

It’s not just Americans the federal government is after, either. The FBI’s “Biometric Center of Excellence,” which it shares with the US military, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security, also contains the face images of Iraqis, Afghans, visa applicants, and every single visitor to the United States who has been photographed at the border. So while US press reports are describing NGI and its “Interstate Photo System” as criminal justice databases targeting US suspects, the larger effort can better be described like this:

US Government Aims to Collect Biometrics on Every Living Person Worldwide.

This week the FBI proudly announced that its new biometrics overhaul would replace the bureau's fingerprint identification system, which has been used for decades at every level of law enforcement. The announcement makes it seem as if the technology upgrade is just the newest model of the same kind of machine. But fingerprints and face prints are fundamentally different. In order to collect my fingerprint, a cop or FBI agent has to follow me around and wait for me to throw away my coffee cup or newspaper. Not so with the new wave of biometrics.

In cities across the US today, law enforcement—with a little help from their friends at the FBI—can read our identities as we walk down the street, even if the police watching us are doing so from hundreds of miles away. Iris scanning, gait recognition, and even heartbeat biometric identification are other forms of tracking that can take place independent of any physical contact.

There is no federal law that provides oversight of law enforcement or intelligence collection or use of biometric data. But while congress is asleep at the wheel on biometrics and privacy, it has been funding far out research projects to help police and spooks track and monitor us using our biometric identifiers. Just one of those creepy projects? Binoculars with built-in face recognition. It may sound too horrible to be true, but this Terminator style tracking device has already been field tested by police in Southern California.

The FBI has been plowing full steam ahead with its plans to destroy anonymity and privacy in public, but it doesn't have to be this way. Anything human beings build, we can destroy. And we have a good chance of doing it if we work from the ground, up. If you're concerned about the expansion of privacy invasive tools like biometric monitoring, reach out to your local city council. Ask for hearings on the use of biometrics at your police department. The only way to reverse the tide of a swelling surveillance state that threatens to wash away our democracy is to swim hard against the current until it starts to turn.

If we don't, we can all look forward to something like this.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.