News, Science, Technology 2014-04-25

Smile! You’re in an FBI database!

The EFF, or Electronic Frontier Foundation, is an organization set up to protect the civil rights of citizens on the Internet or anywhere electonic surveillance is possible. Because of this, they frequently engage in legal challenges to the United States Government, including Freedom of Information Act requests that net them useful information.

On April 14, they announced a goldmine. According to the EFF, the FBI is about to have a fully operational face recognition database by sometime this summer. This FBI database is not going to be restricted to criminals. The FBI seems interested in virtually any image it can store, which can then be used to tie together any other information to build a profile of each person who has an image that’s been captured on their servers.

According to the EFF:

NGI builds on the FBI’s legacy fingerprint database—which already contains well over 100 million individual records—and has been designed to include multiple forms of biometric data, including palm prints and iris scans in addition to fingerprints and face recognition data. NGI combines all these forms of data in each individual’s file, linking them to personal and biographic data like name, home address, ID number, immigration status, age, race, etc. This immense database is shared with other federal agencies and with the approximately 18,000 tribal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the United States.

One of our biggest concerns about NGI has been the fact that it will include non-criminal as well as criminal face images. We now know that FBI projects that by 2015, the database will include 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes.

Currently, if you apply for any type of job that requires fingerprinting or a background check, your prints are sent to and stored by the FBI in its civil print database. However, the FBI has never before collected a photograph along with those prints. This is changing with NGI. Now an employer could require you to provide a “mug shot” photo along with your fingerprints. If that’s the case, then the FBI will store both your face print and your fingerprints along with your biographic data.

According to the EFF every entry will have a Universal Control Number and every search will be run against all records in the database. So, assuming that the database is comprehensive enough, a simple job interview could net the FBI your entire life, ready to be searched by any connected agency. The FBI intends to share this database, and several states have come on board, with the FBI hoping to convince the rest before the year is out.

What’s interesting is that even though the FBI is going to great lengths to get this system in place, the organization is also disavowing any accuracy of data. This means that someone could search through the database, discover information connect to you and assume it is true, even though it might be very wrong. The EFF is also pointing out that the FBI is being vague on exactly where the images are coming from. Most are coming from expected sources such as mugshots, but other sources are going unidentified.

Why should you care about this new system? The EFF points to a list of reasons:

  1. Criminal and non-criminal records are in the same database. You could be entered into the database just by submitting your data for a job application.
  2. There are currently few restrictions on the data being delivered to the FBI database. The FBI has stated they will not use non-mugshot images, but there is nothing in place to stop this from happening.
  3. The FBI insists that their system will not yield false positives (or, innocent people being connected to a crime through the database search). Nevertheless, there’s nothing in play to indicate that false positives couldn’t happen. You could be connected to a crime just by coming up in a search.

The EFF website has more details. If you’re interested in privacy, you should check it out.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.