Millions of Innocent Faces Will Be Added to the FBI's Recognition Database

The database will include 52 million photos, many of which won't be of criminals.

Apr 16 2014, 12:10pm
Image: Flickr/Kalavinka

Thanks to a lawsuit submitted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we are all a little more informed about how the FBI is on track to having a fully operational facial recognition database by this summer. With this information, we know a bit more about how the database could be used, and how large the agency plans to make it.

Writing in Ars Technica, Jennifer Lynch, the EFF attorney behind the lawsuit, explained the FBI's project. Called 'Next Generation Identification' (NGI), it may hold data on as much as a third of the US population and is being developed to replace the ageing digital fingerprint database that started in 1999. What’s new here is that NGI is designed to be ‘multimodal.' That is, it will link multiple forms of biometric data to biographical information such as name, address,  ID number, age and race. It's currently focused on fingerprint and facial records, but it will also be capable of holding iris scans and palm prints. Lynch told me that in the future it may also hold data on how individuals walk and facilitate voice recognition. 

According to the EFF, “the facial recognition component of this database poses real threats to privacy for all Americans.” They argue that facial recognition technology is not reliable and that the way the database returns results is fundamentally flawed, as well as pointing out that it will indiscriminately combine the details of both criminals and non-criminals.

In 2012, the NGI database already contained 13.6 million images (of seven to eight million individuals) and by mid-2013, it had 16 million images. We now know it aims to have 52 million facial records in its system by next year, and those will include some regular citizens.

The methods the FBI uses to pool masses of biometric data belonging to non-criminals can actually be quite subtle. Whenever someone applies for a job that requires a background check, they are required to submit fingerprint records. These records are then entered into federal databases. Right now, the FBI's fingerprint database contains around 70 million criminal profiles, and 34 million non-criminal records.

But what has changed with the NGI database is that the FBI accepts photographs along with fingerprints. If your employer wants to have a photo of you as well as your prints for their own security and records, this will be stored in the NGI.

The database, while maintained by the FBI, can be searched by “law enforcement at all levels,” according to Lynch.

“Your image would be searched every time there is a criminal investigation," she said. "The problem with that is the face recognition is still not 100 percent accurate.” This means that the system is liable to make mismatches with data. If a camera catches a criminal’s face and that is compared to images in the database, there’s no guarantee that it will pop up an accurate result. 

When the database is searched, it will never return a completely positive result. Instead, it provides the top hits, ranked by probability of match. So if your face just happens to be similar to someone else’sperhaps a snapshot of a gunman caught in CCTV footageyou may become a suspect in that case.

Lynch mentioned another problem that we may come across in the future: When facial recognition technology improves further, law enforcement may be able to identify people remotely by combining the images and information in the database with portable biometric readers. These could be dedicated devices or simple tablets that match an individuals face with an image stored elsewhere.

“Say there's a political protest with a number of demonstrators,” she explained. “Law enforcement might have long-range lenses on their cameras or binoculars that are tied into a facial recognition database, and then the agent is able to identify people at that political protest without their knowledge.”

This sort of data exchange and on-the-ground scanning will be made possible byand is one of the explicit aims ofFirstNet, the nationwide broadband network for law enforcement and first responders

As for the increasing size of the FBI's databases, Lynch sees it “as a general trend.” Perhaps their surveillance powers need to be matched with the same amount of scrutiny.