Up until recently the Federal Bureau of Investigation relied upon a massive fingerprint database to help identify and catch criminals. DNA technology has also come on the scene in aiding investigators. Now the FBI is rolling out its new $1 billion biometric Next Generation Identification (NGI) system.
The database will consist of mugshots, iris scans, DNA records, voice samples, and other biometrics. The real issue that raises concerns for privacy advocates is how the data is captured.
Over the last few months, the FBI has been pilot testing a facial recognition system — and soon, detectives will also be able to search the system for other biometrics such as DNA records and iris scans. In theory, this should result in much faster positive identifications of criminals and fewer unsolved cases.
According to New Scientist, facial recognition systems have reached the point where they can match a single face from a pool of 1.6 million mugshots/passport photos with 92% accuracy, in under 1.2 seconds [PDF]. In the case of automated, biometric border controls where your face and corresponding mugshot are well lit, the accuracy approaches 100%. Likewise, where DNA or iris records exist, it’s a very expedient way of accurately identifying suspects.
So far, so good — catching criminals faster and making less false arrests must be a good thing, right? Well, yes, but there are some important caveats that we must bear in mind. For a start, the pilot study has only used mugshots and driving license photos of known criminals — but the FBI hasn’t guaranteed that this will always be the case. There may come a time when the NGI is filled with as many photos as possible, from as many sources as possible, of as many people as possible — criminal or otherwise. This might be as overt as parsing CCTV footage and collating every single face into a database; or maybe you’re just unlucky and your face ends up in the system because you’re in the background of a photo starring a known criminal.
I guess for those who don’t think privacy is an issue, this is no big deal. But for those that do, this gives cause for great concern, especially in light of the nature of government and how corrupt it has become.