Congress and FBI Seeking to Expand Use of Biometric Identifiers

by Zack Kaldveer, CFC Communications Director, Privacy Revolt

A few months back I posted a pretty extensive blog on Facial Recognition technology and the threat it poses to individual privacy. Before I get to an outstanding piece by Tana Ganeva of Alternet about the the FBI biometric database – the largest in the world – containing records for over a hundred million people, as well as 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. – particularly in the workplace (which is especially disturbing)," a little backdrop is in order.

A good place to start is a post I wrote on another article by Tana, entitled 5 Unexpected Places You Can Be Tracked With Facial Recognition Technology. This issue has been an area of interest for the CFC for some time now, as we were deeply involved in preventing the California DMV using biometric identifiers (along with a host of other privacy groups).

As for the larger concern over facial recognition technology, groups from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) to the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to EPIC have all been very active in making the case that there is a very real threat to privacy at stake in determining just how, and when, this technology can be used.

But first, let me refresh everyone on the concept of biometric identifiers – like fingerprints, facial, and/or iris scans.  These essentially match an individual’s personal characteristics against an image or database of images. Initially, the system captures a fingerprint, picture, or some other personal characteristic, and transforms it into a small computer file (often called a template). The next time someone interacts with the system, it creates another computer file.

There are a number of reasons why such technological identifiers should concerns us. So let’s be real clear, creating a database with millions of facial scans and thumbprints raises a host of surveillance, tracking and security question – never mind the cost. And as you might expect, such identifiers are being utilized by entities ranging from Facebook to the FBI. In fact, the ACLU of California is currently asking for information about law enforcements’ use of information gathered from facial recognition technology (as well as social networking sites, book providers, GPS tracking devices, automatic license plate readers, public video surveillance cameras)."

But for today’s sake, let’s hone in on the articles by Tana Ganeva in Alternet entitled 5 Things You Should Know About the FBI’s Massive New Biometric Database, as well as a piece by the Cato Institute detailing all the ways Congress is currently, and aggressively, pushing biometric identifying technologies.

First, let me list the bills, as identified in the Cato piece that all seek to expand and promote these technologies:

    A Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011, has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate. It says that ‘improved pilot licenses’ must be capable ‘of accommodating a digital photograph, a biometric identifier, and any other unique identifier that the Administrator considers necessary.’
    H.R. 1690, the MODERN Security Credentials Act, establishes that air carriers, airport operators, and governments may not employ or contract for the services of a person who has been denied a TWIC card. ‘TWIC’ stands for ‘Transportation Worker Identity Card,’ the vain post-9/11 effort to secure transportation facilities from bad people. TWIC cards use biometrics.
    The Army deploys biometrics. Public Law 112-10, the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (cost per U.S. family: $13,500+) allowed spending on Army field operating agencies ‘established to improve the effectiveness and efficiencies of biometric activities and to integrate common biometric technologies throughout the Department of Defense.’
    H.R. 1842 is an immigration bill called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2011. (Senate version: S. 952) It would allow an otherwise qualified immigrant to get conditional permanent resident status only after submitting biometric and biographic data for use in security and law enforcement background checks.
    S. 1258 does roughly the same thing with regard to any lawful immigration status. This bill is called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011, one of many attempts at comprehensive reform. In addition to requiring immigrants to submit biometrics, it also requires the government to issue ‘documentary evidence of lawful prospective immigrant status’ that includes a digitized photograph and at least one other biometric identifier. The bill would also reinforce the use of biometrics in employer background checks and at the border.
    H.R. 2463, the Border Security Technology Innovation Act of 2011, calls for continued study of mobile biometric technologies at the border. The Under Secretary for Science and Technology of the Department of Homeland Security would coordinate this research with other biometric identification programs within DHS.
    H.R. 2895, the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act, would create a nonimmigrant agricultural worker program. In the program each nonimmigrant agricultural worker would get an identification card that contains biometric identifiers, including fingerprints and a digital photograph.
    S. 1384, The HARVEST Act of 2011, is similar. In providing for the temporary employment of foreign agricultural workers, it calls for ‘a single machine-readable, tamper-resistant, and counterfeit-resistant document’ that verifies the identity of the alien through the use of at least one biometric identifier.
    H.R. 3735, the Medicare Fraud Enforcement and Prevention Act of 2011, would establish a biometric technology pilot program. The five-year pilot program would use biometric technology seeking to ensure that Medicare beneficiaries ‘are physically present’ when receiving items and services reimbursable under Medicare. How many biometric scanners would have to be out there for that to work?
    S. 744, the Passport Identity Verification Act, calls on the Secretary of State to conduct a study into whether people applying for or renewing passports should provide biometric information, including photographs that facilitate the use of facial recognition technology.
    ‘S. 1604, the Emergency Port of Entry Personnel and Infrastructure Funding Act of 2011, establishes a grant program in which the Department of Homeland Security would give cash out to state and local law enforcement for the purchase of various technologies including ‘biometric devices.’

Clearly, biometrics is on the ‘to do’ list of our Congress. But it gets worse, and that’s where the FBI’s massive database, and its plans to expand it, comes in.

As Tana Ganeva illustrates:

NGI will expand the type and breadth of information FBI keeps on all of us," says Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "There 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.

2. Iris Scans
Iris-scanning technology is the centerpiece of the second-to-last stage in the roll-out of NGI (scheduled for sometime before 2014). Iris scans offer up several advantages to law enforcement, both in terms of identifying people and fattening up databases.

The pattern of an iris is so unique it can distinguish twins, and it allegedly stays the same throughout a person’s life. Like facial recognition, iris scans cut out the part where someone has to be arrested or convicted of a crime for law enforcement to grab a record of their biometric data.

3. Rap-Back System
A lot of the action in the FBI’s fingerprint database is in background checks for job applicants applying to industries that vet for criminal history, like taking care of the elderly or children, hospital work, and strangely, being a horse jockey in Michigan. As Cari Athens, writing for the Michigan Telecommunications and Law Review points out, if a job applicant checks out, the FBI either destroys the prints or returns them to the employer. But that’s no fun if the goal is to collect vast amounts of biometric data!

4. Data Sharing Between Agencies
The roll-out of NGI advances another goal: breaking down barriers between databases operated by different agencies. One of the directives of the billion-dollar project is to grease information swapping between the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. The DOJ and DHS have worked toward "interoperatibility" between their databases for years. In 2009, the Department of Defense and DOJ also signed on to an agreement to share biometric information.

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."

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."

Read more here.

As I have often stated, what concerns me is what are the side effects of living in a society without privacy. Where are we left when the power of corporate or government interests to monitor everything we do is absolute?

Whether its the knowledge that everything we do on the internet is followed and stored, that we can be wiretapped for no reason and without a warrant or probable cause, that smart grid systems monitor our daily in home habits and actions, that our emails can be intercepted, that our naked bodies must be viewed at airports and stored, that our book purchases can be accessed (particularly if Google gets its way and everything goes electronic), that street corner cameras are watching our every move, and that RFID tags and GPS technology allow for the tracking of clothes, cars, and phones (and the list goes on)…what is certain is privacy itself is on life support in this country…and without privacy there is no freedom. I also fear how such a surveillance society stifles dissent and discourages grassroots political/social activism that challenges government and corporate power…something that we desperately need more of in this country, not less.