Groups oppose privacy exemption for FBI biometric database

June 2, 2016 - 

Forty-four privacy, civil liberties, and immigrants’ rights organizations sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) this week asking for an extension to the comment period concerning the FBI’s request to modify the Privacy Act.

The federal law enforcement agency is asking for certain provisions of the act to be changed concerning the use of criminal history record information and biometric identifiers within its Next Generation Identification system.

The Next Generation Identification system is designed to advance the bureau’s biometric identification services, providing an incremental replacement of its current integrated automated fingerprint identification capabilities with a multi-modal biometric database. Implemented in 2014, FBI’s newer biometric initiatives promote a high level of information sharing, support interoperability, and provide a foundation for using multiple biometrics for identification.

If the $1 billion Next Generation Identification system is made exempt from the Privacy Act, the FBI would no longer have to effectively disclose when an individual is included in a government database, whether the individual’s information is accurate, or if that person’s profile had been shared with other parts of the U.S. government.

The letter from the multiple groups note: “For years, the American public has waited for the FBI to publish basic privacy notices about this database. Federal law requires that the FBI publish a System of Records Notice (SORN) and/or a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) when the agency starts to keep – or significantly changes – a database like NGI. For years, the FBI has not met these requirements.

In 2011, for example, the FBI began to allow state law enforcement to run facial recognition searches against photos in the NGI database. Despite pressure from Congress and civil society, the FBI didn’t release a Privacy Impact Assessment about this program until September 2015. In fact, even though NGI itself was launched in 2008, the FBI didn’t publish a System of Records Notice about NGI until May 5, 2016 – the same day it proposed to exempt the system from other, even more basic transparency requirements.

The FBI waited over half a decade to publish a basic privacy notice about NGI. Now, the American people have 21 business days to comment on that system – and the FBI’s request to make most of it secret. This is far too little time.”

Civil society groups argue that the system does not only collect information on convicted criminals, but also on people who are just applying for a job, volunteer positions, naturalization, or military commissions, and others who need to undergo a fingerprint or photo background check. The groups believe that the Privacy Act exemption is “an extraordinarily broad proposal” that will negatively impact sensitive communities, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos and immigrants.

As a result of the letter, the civil society groups have gained an extension on the 21-day period for public review and comment on the proposed database from the U.S. Department of Justice. The deadline has now been extended to July 6.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.