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5 Things You Should Know About the FBI's Massive New Biometric Database

Civil libertarians worry about the roll-out of Next Generation Identification, a massive expansion of the agency's current biometric database.

The FBI claims that their fingerprint database (IAFIS) is the  "largest biometric database in the world,"  containing records for over a hundred million people. But that's nothing compared to the agency's plans for Next Generation Identification (NGI), a massive, billion-dollar upgrade that will hold iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, palm prints, and measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars, and tattoos. 

Ambitions for the final product are candidly spelled out in an agency report: "The FBI recognizes  a need to collect as much biometric data as possible within information technology systems, and to  make this information accessible to all levels of law enforcement, including International agencies." ( A stack of documents related to NGI was obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and others after a FOIA lawsuit.) 

It'll be "Bigger -- Better -- Faster," the FBI brags on their  Web site. Unsurprisingly, civil libertarians have concerns about the privacy ramifications of a bigger, better, faster way to track Americans using their body parts.

"NGI will expand the type and breadth of information FBI keeps on all of us," says Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "T here should be a balance between gathering information for law enforcement, and gathering information for its own sake."

Here are 5 things you should probably know about NGI:

1. Face Recognition

This month, the FBI is giving police departments in 4 states access to face recognition technology that lets them search the agency's mugshot database with only an image of a face. Police can repay the favor by feeding the FBI mugshots they collect from local arrests, bulking up the agency's database with images of more and more people.

The face recognition pilot program is supposed to expand to police departments across the country by 2014. When it's fully operational, the FBI expects its database to contain as many records of faces as there are fingerprints in the current database -- about 70 million, reports The agency's optimism seems warranted. If most local police departments are agreeable about information-sharing NGI can vacuum up images from all over the country. 

The problem with that, civil libertarians point out, is that anyone's picture can end up in the database, regardless of whether or not they've committed a crime. Mug shots get snapped when people are arrested, and unlike a fingerprint -- which requires either arrest or consent to a background check -- a face could potentially be captured and fed into a database from anywhere. 

"Anybody walking around could potentially be entered," Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells AlterNet. "Just the fact that those images can be taken  surreptitiously raises concerns. If someone takes your fingerprints, you know. But in the face recognition context, it's possible for law enforcement to collect that data without knowledge." The millions of private and public security cameras all over the country would certainly provide a fruitful source for images, Lynch points out. 

Going out in public naturally entails the risk that someone will see what you're doing or take your picture. Law enforcement officials angling for looser surveillance rules often deploy the argument that what people do in public is inherently  not private. (It's also been used in recent debates over whether it's legal for police to put a GPS tracking device on someone's car  without a warrant.) But privacy advocates counter that modern surveillance technology goes so far beyond the human eye, which obviously has neither the capacity to track someone's location for days (GPS) or store their image in a database (video surveillance, face recognition) that traditional distinctions between public and private don't really apply.

An agency powerpoint presented at a 2011 biometrics conference outlines some of the sophisticated technology in the FBI's face recognition initiatives. There's software that distinguishes between twins; 3-D face capture that expands way beyond frontal, two-dimensional mugshots; face-aging software; and automated face detection in video. The report also says agencies can ID individuals in "public datasets," which privacy advocates worry could potentially include social media like Facebook.