Expansion of FBI facial recognition system raises privacy concerns

Documents released by the FBI show the bureau plans to double the size of its facial recognition database by 2015 and will, for the first time, include facial images of millions of people who have not been convicted of any crimes.

Obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation under the Freedom of Information Act, the documents, including FBI emails, show the bureau plans to increase the number images in the facial component of the Next Generation Identification system from 16 million to as many as 52 million by next year. And of that number, as many as 4.3 million will be images taken for noncriminal purposes.

According to EFF senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch, NGI is ushering in several changes to the way the FBI will manage its civil and criminal fingerprint and biographical databases. For example, employers that require fingerprinting or background checks currently send those biometrics to the FBI for storage in its civil print database. The bureau, however, has never stored a photograph with the prints. But NGI will change this, according to Lynch, allowing the FBI to search facial images of innocent people and potentially implicate them in criminal cases.

“This means that even if you have never been arrested for a crime, if your employer requires you to submit a photo as part of your background check, your face image could be searched—and you could be implicated as a criminal suspect—just by virtue of having that image in the noncriminal file,” Lynch wrote in an April 14 EFF analysis of the new documents.


NGI has been under development since 2010, and has been earmarked to replace the bureau’s current national fingerprint repository known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The IAFIS database contains the fingerprints and criminal histories of 70 million individuals, as well as 34 million civil prints of those employed in sensitive government positions, and 73,000 known or suspected terrorists.

But NGI will significantly expand the capabilities of IAFIS by adding the ability to store and search multiple forms of biometric data, including facial and iris scans, palm prints, and text-based tattoos, scars and other body marks. The FBI also claims the new system will improve search response times from two hours to just 10 minutes in criminal cases, and from 24 hours to 15 minutes in civil cases.

Some of the most recent statistics show that IAFIS, which entered service in 1999, was able to process nearly 63 million ten-print fingerprints last year. At its height in 2010, the system processed more than 300,000 prints in a 24-hour period. Since 2012, IAFIS has averaged about 163,000 fingerprint transactions per day.

According to the new documents obtained by EFF, the NGI system will be capable of processing 55,000 photo enrollments per day.

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