FBI Wants Biometric Database Exempt From Privacy Rules

The FBI proposal to keep its massive biometric database private is opposed by privacy activists who are demanding more time to review the request.

Civil liberties and privacy groups are petitioning the U.S. government for more time to fight the FBI’s request to exempt itself from lawsuits related to its warehouse of an estimated 100 million biometric records if it’s found in violation of the federal Privacy Act of 1974.

At issue is the government’s massive Next Generation Identification (NGI) database that was launched in 2008 and includes millions of civilian and criminal fingerprints, facial recognition data, iris scans and palm prints. Under the federal Privacy Act, citizens are permitted to request access to their own records (if they exist) and request changes if the information is incorrect.

The groups are concerned over the FBI’s request to be exempt from the Privacy Act. The Act would require the bureau to inform people, if asked, if they are listed in the system. The bureau is also seeking to deny individuals the ability to correct any erroneous information that may be part of the government’s biometric dossier.

The FBI and Justice Department argue public access to those records could compromise ongoing probes by alerting people they are subjects of investigations. The FBI’s request for exemption allows for 21 business days for anyone to object.

The FBI’s request has sparked outrage among 44 organizations – that include privacy, civil liberties, and immigrants’ rights organizations – that sent a letter to the FBI on May 27 demanding 30 additional days to respond.

“Only with that additional time do we think we can perform a thorough analysis of both proposals to ensure the FBI doesn’t do more to violate your civil liberties. After years of delay and stonewalling, the FBI owes it to the public to grant this request,” wrote Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who is also a signatory of the letter.

For the EFF and others, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) database is a civil liberties nightmare. Groups such as the EFF have fought hard for strict oversight of the NGI and to limit its scope.

“More time is needed to review the FBI’s request. But we are more concerned about the (NGI) database in the first place. We think this kind of database is a dangerous thing for civil liberties,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the EFF in an interview with Threatpost.

In its letter to the Department of Justice, groups argue that the NGI contains non-criminal and criminal records that create an unwieldy database ripe for both abuse by the FBI and errors when trying to identify criminals.

“The NGI system may not affect everyone equally. Instead, it likely includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. This is a problem from a technical perspective, as a body of research –including research authored by FBI personnel –suggests that some of the biometrics at the core of NGI, like facial recognition, may misidentify African Americans, young people, and women at higher rates than whites, older people, and men, respectively,” wrote the group.

The EFF and others say they are worried of the ripple effect the NGI will have on privacy and civil liberties. For example, final disposition of arrest outcomes are not always reflected in the NGI database. “If arrest records aren’t updated with final disposition information, hundreds of thousands of Americans searching for jobs could be prejudiced and lose work. And due to disproportionately high arrest rates, this uniquely impacts people of color,” Lynch wrote.

The NGI database will be searched thousands of times a day by law enforcement and the consequences and danger of false positives is unacceptable, said Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project with the Center for Democracy and Technology. The CDT joined the letter requesting more time to review the FBI’s exemption request.

“The danger of false positives is extreme, both because of the potential unreliability of things like facial recognition, and because the system will include a vast amount of information on individuals who have no connection whatsoever to the criminal justice system,” Rottman wrote in a post on the CDT website.

According to statistics provided by the EFF, by the FBI’s own estimate the NGI system may produce a false match – indicating someone is a suspect for a crime they didn’t commit – at least 15 percent of the time. The EFF cites research from 2012 that asserts that facial recognition also misidentifies African Americans and ethnic minorities, young people, and women at higher rates than whites.

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