FBI to launch nationwide facial recognition service

Four states will begin using the service in January; immigrant rights groups worry Homeland Security will abuse the biometric database.

The FBI by mid-January will activate a nationwide facial recognition service in select states that will allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos, bureau officials told Nextgov.

The federal government is embarking on a multiyear, $1 billion dollar overhaul of the FBI's existing fingerprint database to more quickly and accurately identify suspects, partly through applying other biometric markers, such as iris scans and voice recordings.

Often law enforcement authorities will "have a photo of a person and for whatever reason they just don't know who it is [but they know] this is clearly the missing link to our case," said Nick Megna, a unit chief at the FBI's criminal justice information services division. The new facial recognition service can help provide that missing link by retrieving a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo.

Today, an agent would have to already know the name of an individual to pull up the suspect's mug shot from among the 10 million shots stored in the bureau's existing Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Using the new Next-Generation Identification system that is under development, law enforcement analysts will be able to upload a photo of an unknown person; choose a desired number of results from two to 50 mug shots; and, within 15 minutes, receive identified mugs to inspect for potential matches. Users typically will request 20 candidates, Megna said. The service does not provide a direct match.

Michigan, Washington, Florida and North Carolina will participate in a test of the new search tool this winter before it is offered to criminal justice professionals across the country in 2014 as part of NGI. The project, which was awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2008, already has upgraded the FBI's fingerprint matching service.

Local authorities have the choice to file mug shots with the FBI as part of the booking process. The bureau expects its collection of shots to rival its repository of 70 million fingerprints once more officers are aware of the facial search's capabilities.

Thomas E. Bush III, who helped develop NGI's system requirements when he served as assistant director of the CJIS division between 2005 and 2009, said, "The idea was to be able to plug and play with these identifiers and biometrics." Law enforcement personnel saw value in facial recognition and the technology was maturing, said the 33-year FBI veteran who now serves as a private consultant.

NGI's incremental construction seems to align with the White House's push to deploy new information technology in phases so features can be scrapped if they don't meet expectations or run over budget.

But immigrant rights groups have raised concerns that the Homeland Security Department, which exchanges digital prints with the FBI, will abuse the new facial recognition component. Currently, a controversial DHS immigrant fingerprinting program called Secure Communities runs FBI prints from booked offenders against the department's IDENT biometric database to check whether they are in the country illegally. Homeland Security officials say they extradite only the most dangerous aliens, including convicted murderers and rapists. But critics say the FBI-DHS print swapping ensnares as many foreigners as possible, including those whose charges are minor or are ultimately dismissed.

Megna said Homeland Security is not part of the facial recognition pilot. But, Bush said in the future NGI's data, including the photos, will be accessible by Homeland Security's IDENT.

The planned addition of facial searches worries Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who said, "Any database of personal identity information is bound to have mistakes. And with the most personal immutable traits like our facial features and fingerprints, the public can't afford a mistake."

In addition, Patel said she is concerned about the involvement of local police in information sharing for federal immigration enforcement purposes. "The federal government is using local cops to create a massive surveillance system," she said.

Bush said, "We do have the capability to search against each other's systems," but added, "if you don't come to the attention of law enforcement you don't have anything to fear from these systems."

Other civil liberties advocates questioned whether the facial recognition application would retrieve mug shots of those who have simply been arrested. "It might be appropriate to have nonconvicted people out of that system," said Jim Harper, director of information policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. FBI officials declined to comment on the recommendation.

Harper also noted large-scale searches may generate a lot of false positives, or incorrect matches. Facial recognition "is more accurate with a Google or a Facebook, because they will have anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen pictures of an individual, whereas I imagine the FBI has one or two mug shots," he said.

FBI officials would not disclose the name of the search product or the vendor, but said they gained insights on the technique's accuracy by studying research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In responding to concerns about the creation of a Big Brother database for tracking innocent Americans, Megna said the system will not alter the FBI's authorities or the way it conducts business. "This doesn't change or create any new exchanges of data," he said. "It only provides [law enforcement] with a new service to determine what photos are of interest to them."

In 2008, the FBI released a privacy impact assessment summarizing its appraisal of controls in place to ensure compliance with federal privacy regulations. Megna said that, during meetings with the CJIS Advisory Policy Board and the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council, "we haven't gotten a whole lot of pushback on the photo capability."

The FBI has an elaborate system of checks and balances to guard fingerprints, palm prints, mug shots and all manner of criminal history data, he said.

"This is not something where we want to collect a bunch of surveillance film" and enter it in the system, Megna said. "That would be useless to us. It would be useless to our users."

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