FBI sued over secretive facial recognition program
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 searches.”
“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 lawsuit.
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 cameras.”
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 their images."
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 in 2014.
"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.