The FBI Wants Your Fingerprint and Iris and Face and ...
December 26, 2007 5:22 PM
The Federal Bureau of Investigation announces its intention to create a stronger, better, faster database using biometric data
Biometrics is already something of a buzz word, with more and more of its applications in places like train stations, airports and even Walt Disney World. Governmental agencies borrowed the word as of late for more interesting projects: identifying people based on intrinsic physical or behavioral traits.
The FBI in particular is no exception, the agency plans to award a 10-year contract with a one billion dollar tab to expand the quantity and quality of its biometric data.
Biometric information can include many things such as fingerprints, palm prints, iris and corneal scans, facial structure, noticeable markings, stride and even innocuous personal behavior like typing rhythm and mouse gestures. The project, dubbed Next Generation Identification (NGI), is set to gather all types of bio-data and store in one location for identification and forensics purposes.
The database would be accessible by many law enforcement and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which already uses iris scans at airports to allow people who have passed background checks to move through
airport security more quickly
; and the Defense Department, which has been collecting data on Iraqi and Afghan detainees for the past two years.
The database could be used to identify known or suspected criminals or terrorists by matching facial structure, iris scans or the gait of walk via cameras in places of interest like bus stations or airports. The eventual goal will be to identify threats in real-time without human intervention.
Detractors to the FBI's plans claim that such a database has many pitfalls. Gathered data, if incorrect or stolen, could prove a serious problem for ordinary citizens that become victims of the system's imperfections.
The new database differs from the TALON database
forced out of operation last September
. Whereas TALON stored data on individuals as reported by field officers, NGI's data will largely stem from autonomous data acquisition sources -- like cameras and sensors. However, data from NGI will be used in conjunction with entries in the Bureau's Guardian Threat Tracking System; a database that took over TALON's entries after its demise.
"It's going to be an essential component of tracking. It's enabling the Always On Surveillance Society," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in a
article last week.
While the idea does ring of an Orwellian society, agencies like the Department of Homeland Security would benefit from such an overt system, should it work as planned. The FBI is working with the West Virginia University Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR) to make live scanning a reality. CITeR is working on scanning processes that would be able to identify a person by iris scan at up to 15 feet and face-shape by 200 yards. The Center will begin to work with the FBI on biometric research in the near future.
Voicing in on access and privacy concerns, Thomas E. Bush III, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division stated "we have very stringent laws that control who can go in there and to secure the data." Presently over 900,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers have access to the FBI's fingerprint database. The number could increase as more agencies and officials gain access to the growing biometrics database.
More than just privacy advocates have shown disdain for the database. A recent study in Germany using facial recognition technology garnered a 60 percent matches success rate during optimal lighting conditions. The accuracy plummeted as low as 10 percent in low-light situations. The German law-enforcement agency tolerated a false positive rate of 0.1 percent, or 23 people of the roughly 23,000 that passed through the train station where the study was done.
Homeland security and false identification of criminals aside, the system could have other merits if used by other federal and state institutions like hospitals and missing persons units. Various biometric data could be used to identify victims of crimes, along with possible evidence towards their culprits, or to find missing or runaway children who might happen to pass through an area with an active scanning system.
"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer
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