Soon the FBI will be done building a database containing the photographs, fingerprints and other biometric data for millions of Americans, but the agency has been far from forthcoming with the details. A new lawsuit filed this week aims to change that.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights
group based out of California, sued the United States Department
of Justice this week for failing to comply with multiple Freedom
of Information Act requests filed last year by the EFF.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation received no fewer than three
FOIA requests from the EFF last year for details about its
state-of-the-art Next Generation Identification program, or NGI,
a system that will store personally-identifiable data for
millions of Americans and foreign nationals to act as what the
FBI has called a “bigger, faster and better” version of
what law enforcement already uses. But while the bureau has
indeed already been using fingerprint information to track down
potential terrorists and troublemakers for years, the EFF’s main
concern revolves around what sort of space-age face recognition
abilities NGI will be able to employ.
The FBI previously acknowledged that NGI will “house
multimodal biometrics records like palm prints and iris
scans” in one master system, as well as facial imaging
information and intelligence about scars, marks and tattoos.
Eventually, the agency said, it hopes to incorporate technology
to track down people using only their voice. For now, though, the
EFF is interested in what the facial recognition infrastructure
will be able to do, and is demanding the FBI fesses up.
“NGI will change almost everything about how the FBI treats
photograph submissions,” the complaint filed this week reads.
Citing government documents, the EFF says that the system will
allow “the increased capacity to retain photographic images,
additional opportunities for agencies to submit photographic
images and additional search capabilities, including automated
“The proposed new system would also allow law enforcement ‘to
collect and retain other images (such as those obtained from
crime scene security cameras’ and from family and friends) and
would allow submission of ‘civil photographs along with civil
fingerprint submissions that were collected for noncriminal
purposes,’” the EFF continues.
When all is said and done, the FBI will be able to use NGI to
scan millions of entries in a single database to find someone
based off of a single photograph, and the EFF fears that could
send things down a slippery slope.
“Governmental use of face recognition – and the potential for
misuse – raises many privacy concerns,” the EFF says in the
Using statements already made by the FBI about the program, the
EFF presents an argument about why they should be worried that’s
hard to counter.
“The FBI has also stated in a public presentation given at a
national biometrics conference that it wants to use its facial
recognition system to ‘identify unknown persons of interest from
images’ and ‘identify subjects in public datasets,’” the
complaint continues. “In the same presentation, the FBI
included a graphic image that implied the Bureau wanted to use
facial recognition to be able to track people from one political
rally to another.”
Another digital watchdog group, the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, previously alleged that NGI system could be
integrated with other surveillance technology in order to enable
“real-time image-matching of live feeds from CCTV surveillance
Obtaining information about how the FBI will manage and operate
this information has been a priority for the EFF for over a year
now, and the failure to comply with those FOIA requests has
finally prompted the organization to ask a court to intervene.
“NGI will result in a massive expansion of government data
collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes,” EFF
Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement this week.
“Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil
liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the
most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily
take precautions against the covert, remote and mass capture of
The EFF is asking the court to enforce the FOIA requests sent
last June and July, which could compel the FBI to disclose
information about the face-recognition program and any plans to
merge civilian and criminal records in a single database. They
are also asking for the total number of face-recognition capable
records currently in the database and an assessment of what
number the agency expects to have when it rolls out the program
“Before the federal government decides to expand its
surveillance powers, there needs to be a public debate,”
Lynch said. “But there can be no public debate until the
details of the program are presented to the public.”
In a July 18, 2012 assessment, the FBI reported that the program
was “on scope, on schedule, on cost and 60 percent
deployed.” The program is being put together by contractors
Lockheed Martin, who are expected to rake in $1 billion from the
government by the time the NGI system is finally up and running.
The FBI previously admitted that they found 7,380 records that
were “potentially responsive” to one of the EFF’s request,
but has yet to deliver actual information pursuant to any of the
three FOIA submissions filed, prompting the nonprofit to allege
the FBI is “dragging its feet.”
“FBI has not explained to the public how NGI or IAFIS’s system
design would ensure that civil submissions are not ‘tainted’ by
criminal submissions or explained why it is necessary to combine
the two types of data,” the EFF wrote in the complaint.
Republished with permission from:: RT