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EFF asks for privacy review of FBI biometrics database


The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and several other organizations have formally asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the privacy implications of the biometric database operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the EFF and other affiliated groups notes that the “capacity of the FBI to collect and retain information, even on innocent Americans, has grown exponentially. It is essential for the American public to have a complete picture of all the programs and authorities the FBI uses to track our daily lives and an understanding of how those programs affect our civil rights and civil liberties.”

The EFF and others groups are lobbying for greater examination of the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) program. The program 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. According to the FBI, the future of identification systems is currently progressing beyond the dependency on a uni-modal, fingerprint biometric identifier towards multi-modal biometrics, which includes voice, iris and facial recognition. The NGI program is therefore designed to advance the integration strategies and indexing of additional biometric data that will provide the framework for a future multi-modal system that will facilitate biometric fusion identification techniques.

The framework is an expandable, scalable, and flexible system, designed to accommodate new technologies and biometric standards, and to be interoperable with existing systems. Once fully implemented, the new FBI biometric initiative and its concurrent multi-modal functionality will promote a high level of information sharing, support interoperability, and provide a foundation for using multiple biometrics for positive identification.

BiometricUpdate.com has previously reported that the FBI intends to spend US$1 billion on its Next Generation Identification program. The EFF intends to ask for a privacy impact assessment for the NGI, because the group claims that an assessment is required under the Privacy Act.

The Act requires all federal agencies that maintain records on Americans to explain how they collect, store and utilize that data. Under the Act, agencies are required to undertake compulsory assessments on a regular basis and make them available to the public. The last assessment, undertaken back in 2008, only examined the impact of previous integrated automated fingerprint identification capabilities.

With the emergence of multi-modal biometric capabilities, with the capacity to store over 50 million face images, the EFF wants an updated assessment. The EFF and other groups want to ensure that the database will not retain the information of non-criminals and that the database will not perpetuate racial and ethnic profiling, social stigma, or be subject to inaccuracies before its goes live by the end of the summer.

The EFF and its aligned groups have made a copy of the letter available to the public.

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