Technology

FBI’s Facial-Recognition Technology Has Achieved ‘Full Operational Capability’

No turning back: Next-gen facial-recognition technology has arrived, despite concerns from privacy groups.

A 3D facial recognition program is demonstrated during the Biometrics 2004 exhibition and conference October 14, 2004 in London.
National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Sept. 15, 2014, 8:22 a.m.

The FBI’s fu­tur­ist­ic iden­ti­fic­a­tion powers are ready for prime time.

The Next Gen­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fic­a­tion Sys­tem, a con­tro­ver­sial bio­met­ric data­base that re­lies heav­ily on fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy, is now fully op­er­a­tion­al, the agency an­nounced Monday.

The pro­gram is de­signed to help law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials identi­fy crim­in­al sus­pects, but it has en­dured re­peated scru­tiny from civil-liber­ties groups that say the data­base will en­danger the pri­vacy of every­day cit­izens guilty of no wrong­do­ing.

“This ef­fort is a sig­ni­fic­ant step for­ward for the crim­in­al justice com­munity in util­iz­ing bio­met­rics as an in­vest­ig­at­ive en­a­bler,” the FBI said in a state­ment.

The agency an­nounced two new ser­vices Monday that com­plete the data­base’s “op­er­a­tion­al cap­ab­il­ity.” The first, called Rap Back, al­lows of­fi­cials to re­ceive “on­go­ing status no­ti­fic­a­tions” re­gard­ing the re­por­ted crim­in­al his­tory of people “in po­s­i­tions of trust, such as school­teach­ers.”

The oth­er newly de­ployed ser­vice is the In­ter­state Photo Sys­tem, a fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion pro­gram that will al­low law-en­force­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing pro­ba­tion and pa­role of­ficers, to cross-ref­er­ence pho­to­graph­ic im­ages with crim­in­al data­bases.

Pri­vacy groups have re­peatedly de­plored the FBI’s fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion data­base as rife with troub­ling pri­vacy im­plic­a­tions. In June, the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion, and oth­ers warned that the fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion pro­gram has “un­der­gone a rad­ic­al trans­form­a­tion” since it was last vet­ted for pri­vacy con­cerns six years ago. The lack of over­sight, they said, “raises ser­i­ous pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties con­cerns.”

“One of the risks here, without as­sess­ing the pri­vacy con­sid­er­a­tions, is the pro­spect of mis­sion creep with the use of bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ers,” Jeram­ie Scott, na­tion­al se­cur­ity coun­sel with the Elec­tron­ic Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter, told Na­tion­al Journ­al in June. “It’s been al­most two years since the FBI said they were go­ing to do an up­dated pri­vacy as­sess­ment, and noth­ing has oc­curred.”

A 2010 re­port on the FBI’s fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion tech­no­logy found it could fail one in every five times it was used, a rate far high­er than more-tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of iden­ti­fic­a­tion, such as fin­ger­print­ing or iris scans.

But earli­er this year, FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey at­temp­ted to dis­pel fears that the use of bio­met­ric data for iden­ti­fic­a­tion pur­poses amoun­ted to some sort of Or­wellian track­ing sys­tem. Comey test­i­fied be­fore Con­gress that the data­base would not col­lect or store pho­tos of every­day people. Its use, he said, is only in­ten­ded to “find bad guys by match­ing pic­tures to mug­shots.”

No fed­er­al laws lim­it the use of fa­cial-re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware, either by the private sec­tor or the gov­ern­ment.

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