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article imageFed's tattoo identification system raises 1st amendment questions

By Karen Graham     Jun 3, 2016 in Technology
The FBI's plan to compile a database of over 100,000 tattoo images, sourced from prison and law enforcement files has come up against the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that defends civil liberties in the digital world.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) feels that the FBI's plans to amass a database of tattoos as a tool in identification, much like fingerprints and facial recognition programs, has gone too far, encroaching on a citizen's civil liberties.
The uproar stems from the findings by EFF on an experimental tattoo recognition program started in 2014, and run by the FBI in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That project was called Tatt-C.
Earlier this week, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), a part of the Department of Commerce. hosted an event called Tattoo Recognition Technology — Challenge (Tatt-C), sponsored, of course, by the FBI.
A member of the Mexican Mafia has the organization s name tattoed on his abdomen.
A member of the Mexican Mafia has the organization's name tattoed on his abdomen.
U.S. Department of Justice
It was after the news of the event came out that all the hoopla about tattoo recognition technology became front-page news. The groups participating in the event were given a large data set and challenged to come up with an algorithm to scan information and make identification of people easier based on their tattoos.
Tasked to create algorithms
Some of the tasks the groups were asked to accomplish included developing algorithms to identify an image within a tattoo, or matching body art to an image of a particular person with a tattoo. When asked why all this was necessary, a NIST spokesperson, Mai Ngan, a computer scientist, explained that the current technology is very outdated.
“Right now, law enforcement collects tattoos and labels them using a text-based approach. But that method is not working for a number of reasons,” Ngan told Business Insider. Currently, tattoo identification is based on using "keywords." But because different people might describe a tattoo differently, the method is full of flaws.
There is also the need to improve the system because it would help in identifying criminals or victims when other biometric data may not be available. “Tattoos have been used for a long, long time to help with the identification of people and also for investigative research,” Ngan said.
Ngan pointed out that while a tattoo is not a fingerprint or an iris, meaning they can't uniquely identify a person, they are helpful in a cold case when facial and fingerprint biometrics aren't available. In the U.S. about 20 percent of the population has some sort of body art, and in criminals, the percentage is much higher.
Ngan also says that creating a more comprehensive database of tattoos does not mean the government is trying to keep an eye on us because most all of the tattoo images are created when someone is arrested. “The government doesn’t have plans to collect everyone who has a tattoo,” Ngan said. “We don't want to judge, just because you have a tattoo doesn’t mean you are a criminal.”
But what about our civil liberties?
Gizmodo says the EFF contends that law enforcement says it wants the technology to decipher body art that may “contain intelligence, messages, meaning and motivation.” And EFF says they have a lot of problems with this because they fear this sort of project could be flawed and worse, may contain unintended biases.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the project was that the NIST researchers back in 2014 didn't obtain permission for the project until after they had already conducted their initial research. So was that research conducted in secret? Also, they didn't disclose where the pictures of prisoners and their tattoos came from. The EFF describes this as "treating inmates as a bottomless pool of free data."
While the Feds say that the new system of identification will be used by law enforcement in the proper manner, we know that today, no one, including law enforcement personnel, are above breaking the law. So could tattoos be used for other more devious means? What do you think?
More about federal database, Tattoos, Technology, Facial recognition, Civil liberties
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