FBI to open facial recognition searches to police nationwide

The FBI is expanding the pilot project of its facial recognition software and will be offering a free-of-charge client software version later this summer to law enforcement agencies.

The Universal Face Workstation will enable law enforcement agencies to conduct automated facial/photo searches with minimal resource investment.

The facial recognition system was piloted in February with the state of Michigan, which is currently submitting searches to the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division, according to Jerome Pender, the division’s deputy assistant director. He spoke in a recent statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law in a hearing on facial recognition technology and privacy and civil liberties issues.

Several other states are now joining the initiative. “[Memorandums of understanding] have also been executed with Hawaii and Maryland, and South Carolina, Ohio and New Mexico are engaged in the MOU review process for facial recognition pilot participation. Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee, Nebraska and Missouri are also interested in facial recognition pilot participation,” Pender said.

The agency’s facial recognition pilot provides a search of a repository of nearly 13 million criminal mug shot photos taken at time of booking. It is scheduled to be fully operational in the summer of 2014.

Some have expressed privacy concerns about the system. In the same hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he scheduled the hearing because “there is no law regulating law enforcement use of facial recognition technology.”

“Facial recognition creates acute privacy concerns that fingerprints do not. Once someone has your faceprint, they can get your name, they can find your social networking account and they can find and track you in the street, in the stores you visit, the government buildings you enter, and the photos your friends post online,” he said. “I fear that the FBI pilot could be abused to not only identify protesters at political events and rallies, but to target them for selective jailing and prosecution, stifling their First Amendment rights. Curiously enough, a lot of the presentations on this technology by the Department of Justice show it being used on people attending political events or other public gatherings. I also fear that without further protections, facial recognition technology could be used on unsuspecting civilians innocent of any crime -- invading their privacy and exposing them to potential false identifications.”

However, the FBI has stressed that CJIS holds only criminal mug shots and can be accessed only by authorized law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, participants are required to detail in their MOU the purpose, authority, scope, disclosure and use of information and the security rules and procedures associated with piloting, said Pender.

“We certainly do not store photographs obtained from other sources such as social media,” David Cuthbertson, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services, said in an FBI podcast on the issue.

However, according to the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, previous statements from agency employees “suggests the FBI wants to be able to search and identify people in photos of crowds and in pictures posted on social media sites -- even if the people in those photos haven’t been arrested for or even suspected of a crime. The FBI may also want to incorporate those crowd or social media photos into its face recognition database.”

Additional documents released by the FBI discuss the FBI’s plans to combine civil and criminal biometrics records, although they have always been kept separate in the past, noted EFF.

The FBI’s facial recognition software is part of its Next Generation Identification program, a multi-year initiative to develop additional biometric identification capabilities. Last month the agency issued a request for information from academia, private industry and law enforcement agencies on how to build a tattoo database.

Currently the FBI has two other parts of the program in progress: the national palm print system, scheduled to deploy in the spring of 2013; and the iris pilot, scheduled for late summer or fall of 2013.

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