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Your Face, Voice, and Tattoos Are the FBI's Business Now

The FBI's huge biometrics database just reached "full operational capacity," but the outrage machine is burned out on surveillance.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh

The FBI announced this week that the massive database system it had been building for eight years, pulling together stores of biometric information on millions of people, is at "full operational capacity."

The Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is a vast, centralized surveillance tool — and the stuff of totalitarian dystopia: fingerprint databases, iris scan details, more than 50 million images used for facial recognition (a.k.a. "faceprints"), and the capacity to hoard information of individualizing details like gait, voice pattern, and tattoos. Yet aside from a flurry of pained press releases from privacy groups and civil libertarians, the news of Big Brother's ascension was met not with a yell but a whimper.


Such is the nature of a surveillance empire that was not built in a day. The NGI system took eight years and cost $1 billion in tax-payer funded contracts with companies like Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems to reach full capacity. It was constructed in large part from already existing law enforcement, Defense Department, and Homeland Security databases and biometric technologies. While staggering in scope, the system has been creeping into fruition, perhaps accounting for the muted response from the outrage machine — which has also burned itself out on more than a year's worth of revelations about the NSA.

The NSA has revealed new details about its exhaustive search of Edward Snowden's emails. Read more here.

There is plenty to be concerned about with the FBI's system, especially if we still entertain the idea that the agency's primary goal is criminal investigation, not general civilian surveillance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has noted that the FBI's biometric databases are not limited to those who have been arrested. "You could become a suspect in a criminal case merely because you applied for a job that required you to submit a photo with your background check." Indeed, the FBI's NGI announcement included details about its "Rap Back" program, which specifically monitors and targets individuals in "positions of trust."

If you were thinking "positions of trust" encompassed, say, municipal police forces around the country, think again. Rap Back monitors "non-criminal justice applicants, employees, volunteers, and licensees; Individuals under the supervision or investigation of criminal justice agencies." In other words, as TechDirt notes, the system does not target employees of criminal justice agencies; just those under their "supervision," like "parolees and those on probation." As Tim Cushing notes on TechDirt:


Presumably, the criminal justice system will police itself, relying only on pre-employment screenings (if that). The problem is that employees with criminal history have been known to jump from agency to agency without their new employers knowing (or caring) about the incidents that forced the job change.

The other unremarkable detail about the FBI's announcement was that promised privacy oversight measures did not attend the biometrics system's capacity-reaching milestone. In 2011, the agency launched a pilot version of the database and vowed that "it doesn't threaten individual privacy. As required with any federal system, the FBI is doing Privacy Impact Assessments on what information will be collected, how it will be shared, how it will be accessed, and how the data will be securely stored… all in an effort to protect privacy." But the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) that was promised for 2012 has still not been produced.

And while 18,000 law enforcement agencies will have access to NGI, which aims to store 52 million pictures by next year, there has been no great rush to buy "counter-surveillance" clothing. Nor have I seen an uptick in the use of make-up techniques to thwart facial recognition software; they're known as CV-Dazzle, and require monochrome geometric shapes drawn on one's face along with long, asymmetrical hair. It's kind of like living in Gotye music video.

Why was the FBI investigating Michael Hastings' reporting on Bowe Bergdahl? Read more here.

The news of a centralized surveillance system was received with some resignation. At no one point in time did we consent to the fact of our totalized surveillance, but it did not appear as a fact all at once, to be accepted or resisted.

There's nothing especially new about "faceprints," nor law enforcement agencies identifying suspects through gait or tattoos; inked-up street protesters have known to wear long sleeves for years. The FBI's system was a long time in the making and arrives, fully formed, with little fanfare. Which is not to say that our tacit adaptation to surveilled existence — indeed, our production of it, as we feed online databases with images and once-private information — was ever something to which we consented. We have long been subjects of an archipelago of these databases, now united in a powerful surveillance empire. Mission creep, complete.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr