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Civil rights activists sue FBI for access to facial recognition technology records

July 10, 2013

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a California based non-profit digital rights organization, has filed a lawsuit against the FBI over the use of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program. EFF is concerned about the use, or rather the potential misuse, of the new system’s facial recognition technology along with the privacy issues that will arise after the system’s scheduled launch in 2014.

facial recognition technology

A soldier scans the iris of another trooper during a training program with Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE). HIIDE is used to measure personal biometric data to later identify persons of interest. Image courtesy The U.S. Army.

EFF previously submitted three Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) requesting that the FBI provide details on its new biometric technology. NGI will save the personal, identifiable data of millions of Americans, which according to the FBI will create a ‘bigger, faster and better’ version of the current law enforcement system. The FBI has failed to provide any satisfactory answer to the FOIAs filed last year.

What does NGI consist of?

The Next Generation Identification biometrics database is an expansion of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The upcoming recognition program includes various biometric identifiers, such as iris scans, DNA mapping, palm prints, voice samples, fingerprints, scars, photographs and more.

EFF lawyers wrote in court documents that NGI would create a distinctive “face print” for every person in its system. They also wrote that facial recognition would enable the FBI to identify people in public and track people on social networking sites.

Why does EFF perceive NGI as a threat?

According to EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch, the new program will provide extensive data “for both criminal and non-criminal purposes.” In addition, the biometrics present “critical threats to civil liberties and privacy.” Facial recognition technology is an “alarming” development, as “Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote and mass capture of their photos.”

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, EFF requested that the judge ask the FBI to respond to the group’s FOIA requests filed in June and July of last year.

In these Freedom of Information Acts, EFF asks the FBI to disclose its agreements and discussions with state agencies regarding the face recognition program along with records addressing the reliability of this technology. EFF also wants to look at documents concerning the bureau’s plan to merge civilian and criminal records in a single repository and would like the government agency to disclose the existing number of face recognition records in the biometric database.

A similar lawsuit was field by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in April of this year. The lawsuit, filed in the Washington Court, stated the same concerns about privacy and information misuse. It also accused the FBI of disclosing information to private companies.

While at the time of the first lawsuit the FBI touted NGI as a way to decrease “criminal and terrorist activities by improving and expanding biometric identification and criminal history through research evaluation and implementation of advanced technology,” the agency has declined to comment on the charges brought by EFF’s lawsuit.


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Category: Surveillance

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