The Federal Bureau of Investigation will soon be offering its nationwide facial recognition database at no charge to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. It’s all part of the FBI’s Next Generation Identification program.
Its intent, the government says, is to help catch criminals and prevent terrorist attacks. Law enforcement agencies embrace the new technology, saying it will go a long way in aiding in the fight against crime. But what are the legal ramifications of such a program? And does it border on invasion of privacy?
In the old days, the FBI used to link fingerprints to criminals with a wrap sheet. Now, the FBI is turning to biometrics like palm prints and iris scans. Basically, the stuff that science fiction writers have brought to life on television and in celluloid (think “Star Trek” or “Minority Report”) is now a reality. But instead of using the technology for opening doors or passing through security, the government is letting local crime-fighting agencies use these tools at their discretion.
That’s a slippery slope, some say.
“Facial recognition creates acute privacy concerns that fingerprints do not,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., told the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law earlier this year. “Once someone has your faceprint, they can get your name, they can find your social networking account and they can find and track you in the street, in the stores you visit, the government buildings you enter and the photos your friends post online.”
The FBI says only authorized agencies will have access to Next Generation Identification, which is solely to be used for criminal justice purposes.
“It’s very clear as to what the facial recognition portion of the next generation identification system is,” FBI spokesman Bill Carter told TechNewsWorld.
But the new technology raises the question of whether the database is limited to those who have already been arrested or those who are under suspicion.
“One of the problems here is that this new technology can be used very quickly and efficiently to ferret out would-be criminals, but it may do so in ways that challenge our historical understanding of reasonable searches and seizures and due process,” says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV.
The tiered biometric program is being implemented in six phases, the last of which is slated for 2014.
“We need very clear parameters of who’s in and who’s out, and we absolutely need strong oversight,” Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told TechNewsWorld. “One of the questions that we have is where are the checks and balances?”
Whatever the answer, it’s enough to make even George Orwell roll over in his grave.