The FBI has announced it plans to assemble the world's largest biometric database, nicknamed the Next Generation Identification system. Currently, the FBI stores fingerprints, facial features, and palm print characteristics at its facilities in Washington DC. The agency's $1 billion dollar database, however, will hold far more information on any given person.
Moving forward, the FBI expects to make this comprehensive biometric database available to a wide variety of federal, state, and local agencies, all in the name of keeping American safe from terrorists (and illegal immigration). The FBI also intends to retain (upon employer request) the fingerprints of any employee who has undergone a criminal background check, and will inform the employer if the employee is ever arrested or charged with a crime.
Lofty goals are one thing, practical implementation is another. The biometric database the FBI envisions will rely heavily on realtime (or very nearly realtime) comparisons. According to the Washington Post, this could include general face recognition, specific feature comparison (notable scars, shape of the earlobe, etc), walking stride, speech patterns, and iris comparisons. To date, facial-recognition technology hasn't exactly reshaped the face of law enforcement. A German study last year showed some progress in the technology—existing implementations proved more than 60 percent effective during the day—but accuracy fell to 10-20 percent at night. German law enforcement officials have stated they would accept a 0.1 percent error rate across a 24 hour period, which leaves current technology with quite a gap to close.
The FBI plans to work closely with the CITeR (Center for Identification Technology Research) research center to improve existing metrics and create new ones. CITeR is reportedly working on an iris scanner that can identify people at up to 15 feet as well as a facial-recognition scanner capable of identifying faces accurately at a range of up to 200 yards.
The FBI's decision to implement this kind of tracking and identification system raises a number of concerns regarding citizen privacy , as well as serious questions about the accuracy of collected data. Any database that isn't closely monitored and continuously updated will inevitably grow out-of-date. It's also not clear that a biometric system of the type the FBI espouses couldn't become confused simply by the natural aging process, weight loss, weight gain, injury, or permanent disability. While there are proven methods of identification that remain accurate even in the presence of such factors, none of them yield realtime results that can be immediately pegged as belonging to an individual even in a crowd of people.
Certain aspects of the FBI's track record in recent years make this proposal even less attractive. In 2003, the FBI exempted its National Crime Information Center, the Central Records System, and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime from subsection (e) (5) of the 1974 Privacy Act. That particular subsection mandates that each agency that maintains a system of records shall "maintain all records which are used by the agency in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the individual in the determination."
According to the FBI, discharging this duty conflicts with the agency's primary purpose as a law enforcement organization, because it is "impossible to determine in advance what information is accurate, relevant, timely, and complete." Information once thought innocuous may also eventually prove to be critical may eventually shed critical details as an investigation continues, and the restrictions of (e) (5) "would limit the ability of trained investigators and intelligence analysts to exercise their judgement in reporting on investigations and impede the development of criminal intelligence necessary for effective law enforcement."
At this point, the FBI's proposed biometric identification system contains no recourse for citizens who are misidentified, no formal method for the update and correction of biometric information, and no indication that citizens would even be allowed to view their own biometric profiles.
The organization's technology track record is anything but good. The organization's Trilogy project launched in 2000 as an effort to update the FBI's IT infrastructure and create a new type of Virtual Case File (VCF) ended in collosal failure in 2005. The agency is currently working on a new, more ambitious system (codenamed Sentinel), but little information is available on how that project is progressing at this time. Once considered the definitive voice of bullet analysis, a six month investigation by CBS television show 60 Minutes and the Washington Post recently uncovered fundamental flaws in the FBI's methodology and basic premises. As a result, evidence presented as fact for the past 40 years has now been called into serious question, simply because the FBI, which claimed it could match bullet fragments to similar bullets—right down to the very same box—never scientifically tested the basic premise.
Even in the best of scenarios, it's unclear whether or not any national database of biometric information could be kept secure, updated, and available for citizen review. The FBI's past history and the agency's decision to remove itself from the requirements of the 1974 Privacy Act leave the current scenario far from ideal, and open the door for any number of misidentifications or abuses.