Privacy Advocates Say FBI Facial Recognition System Could Threaten Civil Liberties

A broad coalition of advocacy organizations is urging the Department of the Justice to formally assess the privacy and civil liberties implications of the FBI’s massive biometric and facial recognition database called the Next Generation Identification System.

In a June 24 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the groups noted that the capacity of the FBI to collect and retain information, even on innocent Americans, has grown exponentially in recent years, and requested the Justice Department to complete an updated privacy impact assessment of the controversial database.

“It is essential for the American public to have a complete picture of all the programs and authorities the FBI uses to track our daily lives, and an understanding of how those programs affect our civil rights and civil liberties,” they wrote.

The NGI is a massive biometric database compiled by the FBI that includes iris scans, palm prints, and facial recognition records, which it shares with other federal agencies and state and local law enforcement.  For example, the FBI projects the NGI will have more the 52 million face images by 2015. It builds on the FBI’s legacy fingerprint database, which already contains well over 100 million individual records—equal to nearly one third of the U.S. population.

However, it appears that the NGI database will contain both criminal and non-criminal records side by side, and searches run on the new system will query the entire database.  That’s different from the FBI’s fingerprint database, which kept those records completely separate, so that any query to the criminal fingerprint database wouldn’t ever touch the civilian data. The groups noted this is particularly troubling because an FBI study found the quality of the data in the facial recognition system is inconsistent and often of low resolution.

The groups pointed out sharing information with local law enforcement based on poor quality data can alter the traditional presumption of innocence in criminal cases by placing more of a burden on a suspect to show he is not who the system identifies him to be.  And this is true even if NGI offers several results for a search instead of one because each of the people identified could be brought in for questioning, even if he or she has no relationship to the crime.

Many of the privacy and civil liberties concerns raised in the letter to Holder mirror those of TCP’s groundbreaking Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance.

Among the groups joining TCP in signing the letter were the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Urban League.

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