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The NGI was an expensive project costing taxpayers billions, much of which went to a variety of high profile contractors, including International Business Machines, Corp. (IBM), BAE Systems plc. (LON:BA), and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT). The lucrative payday for military-espionage corporate special interests might be justified, but the question is whether this program is a more limited effort aimed at criminals, or whether it might be the next coming of the U.S. National Security Agency‘s (NSA) Orwellian PRISM program.
The NGI’s backend is driven by IBM supercomputers.
Some aspects of the NGI are certainly praiseworthy and draw little controversy. For example, it has reduced the time to process high priority criminal ten-fingerprint submissions from 2 hours down to 10 minutes — an order of magnitude speedup.
The NGI is paired with the agency’s next-generation fingerprinting technologies.
The FBI’s full legacy criminal fingerprint database has as many as 100 million fingerprints in it. But only roughly 2 million are stored in this special high-speed database, designed to identify “dangerous” suspects, such as known terrorism affiliates, sex offenders, and fugitives.
The database may also be expanded to include palmprints, an emerging form of biometrics. However, as with the high-priority database, the palm database would likely be reserved for select groups of suspects.
II. Poor Quality Images of Criminals May Lead to False Flagging of Law-Abiding Citizens
The more contentious aspects of the next generation biometrics criminal database are the facial recognition and advanced biometrics bits. In addition to facial images, the FBI is also reportedly storing images of iris and identifying marks (scars and tattoos) to help identify persons of interest, both law-abiding and otherwise.
It’s hard to deny that there may be some benefits to the FBI’s increased ability to identify faces. The FBI’s database of roughly 100 million fingerprints and its large collection of criminals’ DNA has offered key breaks in many cases over the years.
But groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are already voicing concern over a number of aspects of the NGI’s facial recognition components. One concern is that while most of the database’s photos of current and former criminals, a small but increasing minority of its images is of law-abiding citizens. As these two collections (criminal suspects and citizens with clean records) are run through the same identification algorithms, it raises the prospect of innocent citizens being unnecessarily implicated in criminal investigations.
Writes the EFF:
While mistaken identification is of course a common problem in a non-digital context, the NGI could greatly increase it by offering up faulty tools. But how are the tools faulty and who’s to blame? The answer arguably lies in the states.
The size of the database in records has skyrocketed, but poor data quality may lead to false positives.
So far twenty-six states — a little over half the states in the Union — have signed on to participate in the facial recognition program. The other states haven’t — likely fearing civil liberty issues. The FBI set forth a series of guidelines to participating states, but it basically got its images in whatever form the state deemed fit.
A hint at how bad the data quality may be comes in the “Face Report Card”, which the FBI published in a special more in-depth effort with the state of Oregon.
In this publication, it reports that Oregon provided it with 14,408 photos over the review period in 2011. Of these, most were deemed unacceptable for a variety of reasons. First, the photos were of too low a resolution. The program requests that images be at least 0.75 megapixels (less than a smartphone photo). But most of the photos submitted by the state of Oregon were even lower resolution than that — perhaps VGA quality images. Further, many were deemed problematic due to non-ideal lighting, background, and interference.
It’s unclear just how many of the NGI’s images are these kind of poor quality shots. In 2012 the database housed 13.6 million images of 7 to 8 million individuals. By 2013 the database grew to 15 million images and by 2015 it’s expected to further expand to 52 million facial images. The latest metric indicate that on a daily basis roughly 55,000 new facial images are added to the database and “tens of thousands” of searches are conducted by the FBI and the “18,000 law enforcement agencies and other authorized criminal justice partners” (mostly state, local, and tribal police) on the growing database of images.
III. Civilian Contractors are in for a Headache
A particularly glaring concern is that many of the best images may actual come from non-criminals. The FBI says it expects to have 46 million criminal images by 2015, but also 4.3 million “civilian” images — pictures of law-abiding citizens.
Roughly half of states are giving the FBI’s facial recognition efforts a helping hand. [Image Source: EFF]
Technically the FBI appears to be keeping its process of not expanding biometrics to new groups, as the “civilian” images largely come from groups like federal employees or contractors who already were required to submit fingerprints to the government. But what is concerning is that in some cases the high-quality face shots of these law abiding citizens may be compared to millions of low quality images of criminals. Such a system might almost be guaranteed to create false positives.
But the FBI tries to obfuscate the issue with double-speak saying in effect that the system doesn’t make determinations so it can’t have false positives. The EFF describes:
The question becomes if the tool only produces a true positive detection rate of 85 percent and is at its worst accuracy-wise when it comes to criminal photos (which reviews indicated were unacceptably low quality images for a variety of reasons); is the database going to violate due process by leading to the harassment of law abiding citizens?
The EFF doesn’t have a very favorable view of the tool, writing:
Is the database more trouble than it’s worth?
IV. What the FBI Isn’t Telling Us
That question grows tougher to answer amid accusations that the FBI is not being forthright about how many civilian records are in its dataset. If the EFF is correct it is very possible that you may be in the search space, even if you’ve never applied for credentials at a federal agency or done other work-related background screenings that would place you in the FBI’s data set.
The first place you might find yourself is in the vaguely defined categories in the FBI set itself.
Close to a million additional facial images of law-abiding civilians could also be in the database by 2015, under the “Special Population Cognizant” (SPC) (750,000 images) and “New Repositories” (215,000 images) categories. The FBI has been vague about exactly who falls under these groups, but a 2007-era agency document [PDF] unearthed by the EFF seems to indicate that the SPC group will be used as an arbitrary grab-bag which federal partner agencies can use to create groups of civilian or criminal images they feel are relevant to their investigations. For example, a federal agency might include civilian pictures from their contractors’ keycards as part of their submission.
Because of these poorly defined groups the percentage of non-criminal (civilian) images in the database could be as high as 10 percent or as low as 8 percent — in the set the FBI is acknowledging, at least. Either way, some may be surprised to find themselves in the database and potentially unnecessarily ensnared in FBI investigations due to erroneous matches.
But there’s more. There’s a second set you may belong to. And this set may be much bigger.
The EFF also warns that the contractor responsible for the facial recognition algorithm — MorphoTrust (formerly L-1 Identity Solutions) — may also effectively search other large federal and state databases in addition to those detailed by the FBI. MorphoTrust is responsible for the driver’s license databases at 35 of the 50 state Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs). It also provides a facial recognition database for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and yet another database to the U.S. State Department. The State Department database is the largest officially disclosed government facial recognition database in the world, with 244 million images of over 100 million people.
It is known that [PDF] the DoD shares its facial recognition data with the FBI and it is not believed that this is included in the 52 million image total. Similar share may occur with the state DMVs and with the State Department. The EFF complains:
In other words, the database of faces used by the FBI may only be the tip of the iceberg, a criminal subset of the greater search space. The true searchable dataset of faces may be primarily civilians, which raises serious questions why the FBI is accessing that data — or if it’s not accessing it, why it isn’t making that clear to the public.
There’s strong evidence that the NGI is tied to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security‘s (DHS) BOSS project, whose goal is to be able to publicly identify every American in public via facial recognition.
And due process issues aside, this influx of civilian records would seemingly make the job of picking out criminals in the already poor state-submitted photo database even harder.
V. Database May Cover Over 100 Million Americans
It’s possible these datasets are not searchable by the FBI, but the lack of transparency, at the bare minimum, is glaring. The FBI was supposed to conduct regular “Privacy Impact Assessments to discuss and brainstorm solutions to such issues. But its last Privacy Impact Assessment was filed in 2008 — more than a half decade ago. As a result of this blackout, it’s unclear what exactly the FBI’s “fully operational” database truly represents.
Bigger, as in “Big Brother”?
The EFF states that the worse case scenario may indeed not be too far off the mark. Its initial investigation indicates that as many as 100 million + civilians — a third of law-abiding Americans — may have their facial images stored in the database, assigned a searchable “Universal Control Number” just like photos of criminals. The EFF writes:
But threat or no threat, Americans have little recourse unless they can convince the courts that the program is unconstitutional (good luck with that) or, more likely, convince Congress to more clearly and narrowly define its scope. At present Congress has failed to adopt any sort of legislation restricting what kinds of civilian biometrics can be collected and whether those biometrics can be searched in a criminal investigation.
The FBI tried to use facial recognition to ID the Boston bombing suspects, but the system failed. Will it be more useful for harassing the populace? [Image Source: FBI/Salon]
As a result, if you are an American, you might find yourself pulled in for questioning by police in the near future simply because your photo looked vaguely like a blurry VGA photo of a known criminal. And as the number of such innocent mistakes grow, so too does the potential for abuse as law enforcement receives a convenient excuse to pull in and harass whoever they want be it a political rival or an ex-lover.
And moreover, your taxpayer money will be spent on these mistakes — be they innocent and malicious. You may ultimately be paying taxes to falsely implicate yourself in a criminal investigation. It’s easy to see why the EFF believes that it’s cause for concern.
Sources: FBI [press release], EFF [press release]
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