5 Things You Should Know About the FBI's Massive New Biometric Database
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A DHS powerpoint about Secure Communities promises that "Under NGI, law enforcement agencies will have the option to search multiple repositories." FBI reports detail how NGI will promote smoother swapping of more and more detailed biometric information: "NGI will increase
The advantages of collaboration are clear, but it's not without some potentially nasty consequences. When that information includes private identifying data, like the unique pattern of an iris, fingerprint or face , civil liberties advocates see likely privacy breaches.
"With more people having access to data, you don't know where data is going, who's using it against you." says EFF's Lynch. "Particularly when you're talking about surreptitious collection like facial recognition, the government has the ability to track you wherever you go. Data sharing between agencies presents the possibility for constant surveillance."
Sunita Patel points out that cases of mistaken identity can be infinitely complicated when the information flows through multiple government agencies. If you're mistakenly flagged by one agency, she says, how would you go about scrubbing the false record whenever your fingerprint or Iris scan gets pinged by a different one?
5. NGI and Secure Communities (S-Comm)
One recent test run in interagency data-sharing has not gone particularly well: Secure Communities, a DHS program that lets local law enforcement officials run the fingerprints of people booked in jails against the IDENT database to check their immigration status and tip off ICE to undocumented immigrants.
Like many policies targeting America's immigrant population, Secure Communities (S-Comm) -- pitched as protection against violent criminals -- devolved into dragnets and mass deportations, with people getting dragged in for minor offenses like missing business permits and even for reporting crimes. In one incident a woman called the police about a domestic violence incident, only to be ensnared in deportation proceedings herself. As Marie Diamond points out in Think Progress, DHS's immigration databases have so many errors that the program "routinely flags citizens as undocumented immigrants."
To complicate matters: activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights argue that the documents they obtained after an FOIA request and lawsuit show that the FBI saw the program as a great opportunity to start beefing up NGI and pushed reluctant local police departments to participate in the program.
An CJIS/FBI guide instructing officials how to pitch S-Comm to local law enforcement explains that, "Ultimately, LEA participation is inevitable because SC is simply the first of a number of biometric interoperatability systems being brought online by the FBI/CJIS 'Next Generation Identification' initiative."
The document lays out strategies for dealing with resistant police departments, including, "Deploy to as many places in the surrounding locale, creating a 'ring of interoperatability' around the resistant site."
"It's a way of operationalizing wide-sweeping intelligence gathering," Sunita Patel of CCR tells AlterNet.
What could possibly go wrong?
Advancements in the collection of biometric data are double-edged: there's the threat of a massive government surveillance infrastructure working too well -- e.g., surveillance state -- and there are concerns about its weaknesses, especially in keeping data secure.
A breach of a sophisticated, multi-modal biometric database makes for a nightmarish scenario because the whole point of biometric data is that it offers unique ways to ID people, so there's no easy fix -- like a password change -- for compromised biometric data. Pointing to the dangers of identify theft of biometric data, Patel observes that, "Unlike a password, the algorithm of an iris can't be changed."