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Federal Judge Says Public Has a Right to Know About FBI’s Facial Recognition Database

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey // Mike Groll/AP File Photo

A federal judge has ruled that the FBI's futuristic facial-recognition database is deserving of scrutiny from open-government advocates because of the size and scope of the surveillance technology.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the bureau's Next Generation Identification program represents a "significant public interest" due to concerns regarding its potential impact on privacy rights and should be subject to rigorous transparency oversight.

"There can be little dispute that the general public has a genuine, tangible interest in a system designed to store and manipulate significant quantities of its own biometric data, particularly given the great numbers of people from whom such data will be gathered," Chutkan wrote in an opinion released late Wednesday.

Her ruling validated a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that last year made a 2010 government report on the database public and awarded the group nearly $20,000 in attorneys' fees. That government report revealed the FBI's facial-recognition technology could fail up to 20 percent of the time. Privacy groups believe that failure rate may be even higher, as a search can be considered successful if the correct suspect is listed within the top 50 candidates.

"The opinion strongly supports the work of open-government organizations and validates their focus on trying to inform the public about government surveillance programs," said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel with EPIC.

Privacy groups, including EPIC, have long assailed Next Generation Identification, which they argue could be used as an invasive means of tracking that collects images of people suspected of no wrongdoing. The program—a biometric database that includes iris scans and palm prints along with facial recognition—became "fully operational" this summer, despite not undergoing an internal review, known as a Privacy Impact Assessment, since 2008. Government officials have repeatedly pledged they would complete a new privacy audit.

FBI Director James Comey has told Congress that the database would not collect or store photos of ordinary citizens, and instead is designed to "find bad guys by matching pictures to mug shots." But privacy groups contend that the images could be shared among the FBI and other agencies, including the National Security Agency, and even with state motor-vehicle departments.

In his testimony, given in June, Comey did not completely refute that database information could potentially be shared with states, however.

Government use of facial-recognition technology has undergone increasing scrutiny in recent years, as systems once thought to exist only in science fiction movies have become reality. TheNew York Times reported on leaks from Edward Snowden revealing that the NSA intercepts "millions of images per day" across the Internet as part of an intelligence-gathering program that includes a daily cache of some 55,000 "facial-recognition quality images."

The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment regarding whether it will appeal Chutkan's decision.

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