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How a Horrible Invasion of Inmates’ Privacy Led to This Ridiculous Photo

In an unusual response to concerns raised by a nonprofit, the researchers decided to model themselves.
Image: NIST

In response to a privacy concern, federal researchers stripped off their shirts and drew fake tattoos on their arms and bellies. Then, they took pictures. How did this bizarre scene come to pass? Let’s back up a bit.

Two years ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that the FBI had teamed up with researchers at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop tattoo-recognition software, and were using images of real prisoners’ tattoos to help train the system, without the consent of the prisoners.


One of the issues EFF raised was the fact that a publicly-available guide and poster with tips on photographing tattoos for the research included images of inmate tattoos that revealed religious beliefs, images of family members, and names. This blurred version of the poster, provided by the EFF, shows how specific, and potentially identifying, the images were:

Image: Courtesy EFF

In response to these concerns, the NIST decided to recreate the guide using new images for which they had obtained consent. One staff member stripped off his shirt, drew the word “tattoo” on various parts of his body in washable marker, and snapped photos. The new guide, featuring these pictures, is available online now:

“The new document is as embarrassing as it is mystifying,” the EFF wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “While we are glad to see that the prisoner tattoos have been removed from NIST’s poster, the updated poster was not the way to correct the underlying problems with the research program.”

The original photos used in the research, some 15,000 images of tattoos, were “operationally collected” and only approved for use in the experiment after the fact, without first getting consent from the prisoners photographed. There are rules in place around using prisoners in scientific research to protect inmates from exploitation, and the EFF argues that the NIST has violated these rules by continuing to use the nonconsensually-collected images to train its algorithm, even if they aren’t on the posters.

The images and data were also distributed to 19 different third party companies and organizations. In the most recent response, NIST told the EFF that it had removed 28 images that may have contained personal information from the dataset, but didn’t clarify whether the third party firms were instructed to destroy these images as well.

The tattoo-recognition software is being developed in order to not only identify suspects in crimes but also to track people and make assumptions about personal details based on the tattoo’s presumed meaning. The NIST has explicitly stated that the technology is useful because tattoos "suggest affiliation to gangs, subcultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology" and "contain intelligence; messages, meaning and motivation."

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