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FBI's flawed facial recognition program fully operational

By Bill Lindner     Sep 21, 2014 in Technology
Civil right and privacy advocates are concerned over the FBI's recent announcement that a flawed facial recognition software program is now fully operational.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reportedly announced that it has launched what it calls Next Generation Identification (NGI) facial recognition software which stores criminal mug shots and citizen ID photos in the same database as “fully operational” despite a flawed one-fifth false positive rate raising concerns among civil rights groups who warn that the program risks turning innocent civilians into criminal suspects.
According to the FBI, the NGI System was developed to expand the FBI’s biometric identification capabilities and ultimately replace their Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and add new services and capabilities. A recent FBI Press Release notes the introduction of two new services: Rap Back and the Interstate Photo System (IPS). Rap Back enables authorized entities the ability to receive ongoing notifications of any criminal history reported on individuals and IPS facial recognition service will provide the nation’s law enforcement community with an investigative tool that provides an image-searching capability of photographs associated with criminal identities.
NGI, which originally started in 2011, was originally developed to expand the FBI’s biometric identification capabilities, and according to the FBI, will replace the bureau’s current fingerprinting system at some future point in time. The FBI’s database currently holds more than 100 million individual records capable of linking fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition data to pertinent personal information and other private details and the FBI plans to have 52 million photos obtained by 2015. An individual’s personal and private information may be linked to multiple images, including those obtained from employment records, DMV photos and criminal background check databases.
Civil rights and privacy advocates are criticizing the FBI’s program for its invasive and inaccurate tactics. The FBI’s NGI system, which comes with a one billion dollar price tag and has been under development with Lockheed Martin for three years, has been found to identify the wrong individual 20 percent of the time — a statistic which increases over time as the database expands according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Another report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) reveals that the system had an 85 percent success rate when searches were conducted with an unobstructed front-facing image.
The EFF contends that by compiling mug shots and DMV photos in the same database, the FBI risks falsely identifying citizens with no records as potential suspects. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), the former Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, stated that the facial recognition program could be abused to not only identify protesters at political events and rallies, but to target them for selective jailing and prosecution at a July 2012 Congressional hearing on the FBI's facial recognition program.
A letter (PDF) sent by the EFF to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out that data accumulation and sharing can be a good thing, but noted that it can also perpetuate racial and ethnic profiling, social stigma, and inaccuracies throughout all systems and allow government tracking and surveillance on levels that were not possible before. The FBI countered the EFF's points by claiming that NGI was not meant to give accurate information but instead returns a list of potential "candidates," telling EFF that the list of candidates is an investigative lead, not an identification, further claiming that since the system does not single anyone out, the false positive rate is non-existent.
Privacy advocates have also raised concerns over individual features of the NGI program such as Rap Back service which EPIC claims is equivalent to an ongoing continuous background check. In a blog post EPIC wrote that the feature is not only used to monitor whether people under correctional supervision are arrested again but to constantly monitor civilians in various trusted positions such as teachers or bank tellers. EPIC's extensive investigation of the FBI's facial recognition program reveals that it threatens privacy and other civil liberties because it can be easily done covertly, even remotely, and on a massive scale and there are little to no precautions that can be taken to prevent the collection of one's image.
A report from EPIC reveals that the NGI, once completed, will be the largest biometric database in the world, containing fingerprints, iris scans, DNA profiles, voice identification profiles, palm prints and photographs — including those from CCTV cameras — of U.S. citizens. NGI will also be available to private entities unrelated to law enforcement, increasing the substantial risk of personally identifiable information being lost or misused.
There are currently many states participating in NGI and the FBI hopes to bring every state online with NGI by the end of this year. In the meantime, U.S. government intelligence researchers are reportedly developing the Janus Program which will “radically expand the range of conditions under which automated face recognition can establish identity” and there are currently no federal or state laws that limit or regulate the use of facial recognition software.
More about Big brother, Next Generation Identification System, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Interstate Photo System, Electronic frontier foundation
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