by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
biometrics, doj, eric holder, privacy, surveillance

Privacy Rights Groups Ask Eric Holder To Ensure The FBI's Biometric Database Doesn't Become Just Another Domestic Surveillance Tool

from the give-us-your-address,-your-shoe-size,-your-years dept

The FBI is continuing to push ahead with its development of a biometric database (Next Generation Identification, or NGI), which will combine old school fingerprints and background records with facial recognition technology and other biometric data.

The technology continues to improve, but the FBI originally greenlit the database back when it still allowed the database a 20% error rate on its facial recognition. That was back in 2010, and of course, the only reason we know the FBI was perfectly fine with a 1-in-5 screw up rate was because EPIC liberated this information with an FOIA request.

This is also being rolled out without the FBI providing an updated Privacy Impact Assessment, a mandatory document demanded by the DOJ. It told Congress in 2012 that it was working on producing one. It's still telling this same story in 2014, as detailed in a letter to Eric Holder, signed by the ACLU, the EFF, EPIC and several other civil liberties/privacy rights groups.

The FBI recognizes this transformation and, at a July 2012 Senate hearing, committed to updating its privacy assessment of the agency's use of facial recognition. Jerome Pender, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Service Division, stated in his statement for the record that "[a]n updated PIA is planned and will address all evolutionary changes since the preparation of the 2008 IPS PIA." Furthermore, Assistant Director Pender said the updated privacy assessment would have "an emphasis on Facial Recognition." Nearly two years later an updated privacy assessment has not been completed.
This lack of the required privacy assessment also has had little impact on the speed of the FBI's NGI rollout. It has stated that it hopes to have the program fully operational in "fiscal year 2014." In the slight defense of the FBI, there's plenty of "privacy impact" to "assess."

The NGI database not only gathers criminal records from across multiple state and federal databases but also pulls in non-criminal data gathered from federal employees and employer background checks. This database, containing photographs, iris recognition data, palm prints and vast numbers of information collected from existing databases will be accessible by local law enforcement agencies. The possibilities for abuse are nearly endless, and the program itself is far from flawless when it comes to correctly identifying suspects.
According to an FBI study, the quality of images in the database is inconsistent and often of low resolution. Partly for this reason, the FBI doesn’t promise accuracy in its search results. Instead, it ensures only that “the candidate will be returned in the top 50 candidates” 85% of the time “when the true candidate exists in the gallery.” In fact, the overwhelming number of matches will be false. This false-positive risk could result in even greater racial profiling by disproportionately shifting the burden of identification onto certain ethnicities. The false-positive risk can also alter the traditional presumption of innocence in criminal cases by placing more of a burden on the suspect to show he is not who the system identifies him to be. And this is true even if a face recognition system such as 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.
To head off abuse, the letter asks the Attorney General to ensure that the database only collects data on "individuals who are part of the criminal justice system." It also asks Holder to prevent the NGI program from becoming just another way for the FBI (and its partners in law enforcement) to surveill innocent Americans.

Those signing this letter likely know that neither Holder nor the FBI are particularly sympathetic to the privacy interests of Americans, but the letter does create another opportunity to bring the issue to the attention of the public. Enough public pressure can push agencies in the right direction, especially if the public also gets its representatives involved. There's been surprisingly little oversight of the FBI's activities, especially with the NSA claiming most of the oversight spotlight in recent months, but the ACLU and others are always there to remind citizens that there's more than one agency playing fast and loose with American's privacy.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 7:10pm

    Sure Ask away...

    I am sure the last group of peasants that asked their lords & masters if they were getting a fair shake, of anything, worked out well.

    O yea... keep forgetting we once actually had our independence. We are quickly shitting it away.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 7:41pm

    Eric Holder's response

    "But if you want to protect the right to privacy of ordinary citizens, then that means you must hate freedom. Waaaah! What's poor widdle fweedom evaw done to you? Oops, Ewwie's done a poopie!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 7:42pm

    Re: Eric Holder's response

    BTW, can we ask Tom Wheeler to watch little Eric Holder? You know, being a dingo and all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    KRA, Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 7:51pm

    At least 2, maybe 3, FBI experts attested that the fingerprints found on a bag near the Madrid train bombings belonged to Brandon Mayfield. The FBI "experts" said they were 100% sure about the prints. Mayfield would be an international villain, rotting away in infamy forever, were it not for the Spanish National Police conducting a competent investigation and identifying the real bomber.

    After that, Congress ordered the NAS to find out what the hell was going on. The NAS reported that much of forensic "science" is a hot mess--something created by law enforcement and never vetted by actual scientists. A Popular Mechanics article addressed fingerprint ID and wrote,"In one recent experiment, veteran examiners looking twice at the same print came to different conclusions each time." Fingerprint experts don't even agree with their own previous conclusions.

    Still, courts allow this shit as evidence, and we allow law enforcement to not only continue using flawed practices, but also to devise new ones. All without input from trained and neutral scientists. And, of course, without input from the citizenry or, heaven forbid, congress.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 9:14pm

    Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for. ~ Will Rogers

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), Jul 3rd, 2014 @ 10:29pm


    After that, Congress ordered the NAS to find out what the hell was going on.
    And what would an Autism charity in the UK be doing finding out what's going on with fingerprint mis-identification?
    NAS = National Autistic Society.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jul 4th, 2014 @ 3:50am

    Really? Are we really asking Mr Holder who has a history of totally disregarding whether something is abusive or not and just throwing the book he thinks to be fit to hold (pardon me) this from becoming another surveillance tool? Don't we remember Aaron Swartz?

    Try asking the fox not to eat the chicken while guarding them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous, Jul 4th, 2014 @ 6:46am

    Re: Re:

    And here all this time I've been thinking that NAS is a rapper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Padpaw (profile), Jul 4th, 2014 @ 7:42am

    Dear Mr. Holder

    Please do not ignore our rights with your biometric database, even though you ignore our rights in every other case. We realize your a corrupt government official that only cares about the people that pay you off. So we realize it is pointless to ask you not to commit crimes unless we offer a substantial bribe to go along with it.

    Sincerely a clueless and still hopeful public

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    madasahatter (profile), Jul 4th, 2014 @ 9:55am


    Any method that relies on the skill of the analyst is error prone. While most of the errors are innocent, this allows for the abuse of the system by those so inclined. Combine this with the fact most lawyers and judges aka shysters are not trained scientist and tend to be dazzled by the best bs'er. The recipe is for a system that looks scientifically object but is very subjective because of the high error rate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Jul 4th, 2014 @ 1:47pm

    If you have to wait until you hear about it...

    So the government has now admitted the existence of a new biometric database, and you want to make sure it doesn't become a "domestic surveillance tool"?

    Too late.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    christopher oloughlin, Jul 4th, 2014 @ 3:08pm

    biometric data base

    Why ask that recognition only query criminal data base. If surveillance of all communication is allowed it is obvious the decision makers see everyone as the criminal waiting to be caught by their newest tech gadget.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 4th, 2014 @ 5:29pm

    Re: If you have to wait until you hear about it...

    Eric Holder, please don't let this tool of mass surveillance become a mass surveillance tool.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Jul 5th, 2014 @ 8:37am

    Re: Re:

    THE major problem with a number of these 'CSI' type real and bullshit tests of evidence, is that it is primarily controlled by the state, one way or the other...

    1. they rely a LOT on the *SUPPOSED* trustworthiness, honor, integrity, blah blah blah, of the police, the court, the justice dept, the forensics lab, the technicians, etc...

    shut the fuck up: institutions are made of people, people ARE venal, desperate and corruptible, thus: ALL secret organizations WILL become CORRUPTED, per-i-fucking-od.
    this ESPECIALLY includes so-called 'internal reviews', etc, which will ALWAYS devolve into covering up, rather than exposing perfidy and corruption...

    EXACTLY why there has to be OUTSIDE oversight to EVERYTHING 'OUR' (sic) gummint does, in our name, with our money...

    2. *most* defendants will NOT have the money or resources to 'compete' with the state on state-of-the-art lab tests to refute or mitigate such evidence brought against them...
    not only will *most* NOT be able to afford the $1000/day experts, etc; *most* of said experts are under pressure to NOT testify in cases contrary to The State's interest...

    3. there is TOO MUCH reliance on some 'scientific evidence' which is amenable to being either fudged, or not presented realistically... DNA evidence is often presented as 'infallible', and since stupid sheeple believe whatever the conventional wisdom is, they don't know that it is not as cut-and-dried as made out...
    so it has evolved that DNA=guilty, no matter the 'real' statistics paint a more ambiguous picture... not to mention the real possibility of planting DNA evidence after-the-fact... how long before donut-eaters start carrying 'drop-DNA' of their local perps ? ? ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 5th, 2014 @ 10:12pm


    Sixteen-year-old Chase Culpepper went to take his driver's test in Anderson in March.

    After passing his driver's test, Chase went to take his photo for his license. But an employee at the office asked him to remove his makeup.

    The employee told Chase he couldn't wear "a disguise" and didn't look "like a boy should," the teen told the affiliate.

    "At no time will an applicant be photographed when it appears that he or she is purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity," the (DMV photo) policy says.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 11:43am

    Chickens asking the Fox to not eat them....

    Yep, that'll work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    R. Thomas, Feb 16th, 2015 @ 3:21pm

    Biometric NGI system

    A system like this should not be allowed to be implemented until it has been perfected and proven so. A 20% error margin is unacceptable that equals one in five people. Not only is it unacceptable it's criminal. What a waste chasing down innocent people wasting there time and the law enforcement agency's time and resources. Is this going to create a record for innocent people that are dragged in for questioning there by screwing up their lives or will there be no record of the innocents being dragged in for questioning? I doubt it. This whole thing smells more like communism and we thought the Soviet Union was dead and gone. No it's alive and well it just moved to the United States

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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