FBI dramatically expanding biometrics programs: EFF

September 22, 2015 - 

The FBI has expanded its biometrics programs with two major developments that will reportedly impact Americans on a day to day level more than any other biometrics initiative the national law enforcement agency has previously implemented, according to a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The first change, which the FBI revealed quietly earlier this year in a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA), is the consolidation of civil and criminal fingerprints into a single searchable database.

As such, all fingerprints and biographical data sent to the FBI for a background check will now be stored and searched in the same database as those containing fingerprints collected for criminal purposes.

Those U.S. citizens who have their fingerprints collected for licensing or for a background check will likely be stored in the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) database, where they will be regularly searched by law enforcement agencies across the country.

Although this is the first time the agency has allowed routine criminal searches of its civil fingerprint data, employers and certifying agencies have long been submitting fingerprints to the FBI.

Despite this, the FBI says that it rarely held onto these non-criminal fingerprints, and even when it did, the fingerprints “were not readily accessible or searchable.”

The new development will make these fingerprints, and the biographical data included with them, available to any law enforcement agent who wishes to view them. The data will also be searched along with all other fingerprints collected for a criminal purpose, either upon arrest or at time of booking.

This development will impact many U.S. citizens beyond the prospective police officers or childcare workers who are required to submit their fingerprints for background checks.

For example, residents of Texas are required to provide their fingerprints if you want to be an engineer, doctor, realtor, stockbroker, attorney, or an architect. Meanwhile, all jobs with the federal government have mandatory fingerprint checks, including part-time food service workers, student interns, designers, customer service representatives, and maintenance workers.

The other major change to the FBI’s biometrics programs is that the agency is now planning to add photographs taken in the field to its already enormous face recognition database.

The agency recently issued a request for quotations (RFQ) to further expand its mobile biometrics capabilities with an app on Android-based smartphones and tablets that officers can use to collect fingerprints and face images from any individuals they encounter.

If the initiative is implemented, the FBI will be to collect fingerprints and face images out in the field and search them against its Next Generation Identification (NGI) database.

The agency’s current mobile collection capabilities are “not optimized for mobile operations” because they are large and are limited in scope to determining if a person has “possible terrorist links (in the U.S. or abroad) or is likely to pose a threat to the U.S.,” according to the RFQ.

The plan seems to be a greater expansion of the FBI’s “RISC” program, which provides mobile fingerprinting tools to determine whether a person is an “Individual of Special Concern” by accessing a database of “wanted persons, known or appropriately suspected terrorists, sex offenders, and persons of special interest.”

Although the FBI previously said RISC is intended solely for “time-critical situations” and to identify a limited group of people within its criminal fingerprint database, it appears that the agency is looking to use its mobile biometrics collection tools on a broader level.

The new mobile program will allow and even encourage agents to collect face recognition images out in the field and use these images to build out the NGI, which directly contradicts the agency’s practices outlined in its Congressional testimony.

“Only criminal mug shot photos are used to populate the national repository. Query photos and photos obtained from social networking sites, surveillance cameras, and similar sources are not used to populate the national repository,” Deputy Assistant Director Jerome Pender said in 2012.

The RFQ states the FBI is seeking a mobile biometrics solution that would, “at a minimum . . . include fingerprints and facial photographs for submission and receipt of a response.”

Previously reported, the FBI opened a new four-story, 360,000-square-foot biometrics facility on August 11 at the agency’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division campus in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.