FBI’s biometrics database to be exempt from parts of Privacy Act

The FBI has implemented a new rule which will prevent the public from finding out if their fingerprints, iris scans and other biometric information is stored in its Next Generation Identification system, according to a report by NextGov.

The law enforcement agency’s Next Generation Identification system stores the biometric records of people who have undergone background checks for jobs, volunteer positions and military service, as well as of citizens who have criminal records.

Effective August 31, the federal database will be exempt from certain components of the Privacy Act, a law that allows U.S. citizens whose records are held by the government to ask for more details regarding such records.

The exemption means the FBI doesn’t have to acknowledge if it is storing the biometric records of an individual in that database; the bureau has argued that notifying people that they were in the database could compromise investigations.

In the published document, the FBI states that listed exemptions are needed in order to avoid interference with its law enforcement as well as national security functions and responsibilities.

Additionally, the document addresses over 100 public comments and letters from individuals, and from non-government, public interest, civil liberties, non-profit, and academic organizations, on the proposed rule.

The document emphasizes that once the new rule goes into effect, individuals won’t be able to find out what types of records the FBI may have on file because it could “specifically reveal investigative interest by the FBI or agencies that are recipients of the disclosures.”

Since the majority of the criminal records in that database are obtained from state and local agencies at the time of arrest, the document states that “it is not feasible” for the FBI to always collect data directly from the person or alert them that their records are being included.

Last year, the FBI posted a draft of the rule where it argued that some of the records it keeps might seem irrelevant to ongoing investigations, but could later be deemed necessary for “authorized law enforcement purposes.”

Privacy organization Electronic Privacy Information Center has tried to convince the agency of decreasing its data collection and the exemptions from the Privacy Act.

Last November, EPIC filed a lawsuit against the FBI in an effort to get the agency to release all documents related to its plan to provide the Department of Defense with access to biometric information.

Soon after, EPIC found in its investigation that the FBI’s database has an up to 20 percent error rate for facial recognition searches.

Although it is uncertain how many records are in the database, the Electronic Frontier Foundation estimated in 2014 that the system could retain up to 52 million facial images by 2015.

One of the more dangerous effects of the final rule is that citizens whose records are stored in the database might become the subject of investigation without their knowledge, according to Jeramie Scott, EPIC’s domestic surveillance project director.

Scott said that a person whose image is mistakenly pulled up in a search for a different individual might also find themselves being investigated. He added that the FBI is “now in a position as the determiner of when the exemption applies.”

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