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Feds Expanding Biometric Data Collection; State Action Can Limit It

Recently, the FBI quietly announced expansions to its biometrics and information collection programs that could potentially place photos of millions of innocent Americans into federal databases routinely accessed by law enforcement agencies across the country.

But state action can limit its impact.

Moving forward, the FBI plans to combine its civil and criminal fingerprint databases into one. In other words, when an employer or some other agency submits your prints to the FBI for a background check, they will now be stored and accessed along with those of every criminal ever booked into the system. And as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports, it doesn’t just involve fingerprints. The FBI also plans to use similar methods to expand its facial recognition program.

This seems part of an ever-growing movement toward cataloguing information on everyone in America—and a movement that won’t end with fingerprints. With the launch of the face recognition component of NGI, employers and agencies will be able to submit a photograph along with prints as part of the standard background check. As we’ve noted before, one of FBI’s stated goals for NGI is to be able to track people as they move from one location to another. Having a robust database of face photos, built out using non-criminal records, will only make that goal even easier to achieve.

The FBI rolled out its nationwide facial recognition program last fall. Now the feds need photos to populate its database. Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) and drones already provide two mechanisms to gather photos of innocent Americans, along with location data. And state and local law enforcement agencies do most of the work.

Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.

One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”

According to the EFF, the FBI will soon have another method to get your photo.

The FBI recently issued a request for quotations (RFQ) to build out its mobile biometrics capabilities. Specifically, it’s looking for software that can be used on small Android-based mobile devices like Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets to collect fingerprints and face images from anyone officers stop on the street.

If the plan goes through, it will be the first time the FBI will be able to collect fingerprints and face images out in the field and search them against its Next Generation Identification (NGI) database.

The current FBI biometric collection tools reportedly don’t work well for mobile operations because of their size, and the currently have limited applications. That looks to change in the near future.

This plan appears to be a broad expansion of the FBI’s “RISC” program. RISC provides mobile fingerprinting tools to determine whether someone is an “Individual of Special Concern” by allowing access in the field to a database of “wanted persons, known or appropriately suspected terrorists, sex offenders, and persons of special interest.” The FBI says RISC is intended for “time-critical situations” and to identify a limited subset of people within its criminal fingerprint database. But now it appears FBI intends to use its mobile biometrics collection tools much more broadly.

The biggest concern with this new mobile program is that it appears it will allow (and in fact, encourage) agents to collect face recognition images out in the field and use these images to populate NGI—something the FBI stated in Congressional testimony it would not do.

Notice the language used – “officers in the streets.” This does not just mean FBI agents. Once fully developed, the feds will undoubtedly see to it that this technology finds its way into the hands of your state and local police departments. If states don’t act to limit the use of these devices and the way their law enforcement agencies share information, the feds will have free reign to access photos and other data collected and store them in their nationwide databases. That creates the potential for the government to track virtually anybody anyplace in the country.

The federal government depends primarily on state and local cooperation to collect information. Agencies like the DEA and FBI simply don’t have the manpower to collect all of the biometric and location data needed to create a robust database.

We already know the federal government playbook when it comes to supplying surveillance technology to state and local law enforcement. We’ve seen it play out with drones, ALPRs and stingray devices. The feds offer grant money and fund the purchase of the equipment. Federal agencies then tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

In a nutshell, the federal government encourages and funds networks of drones, ALPRs and stingray devices at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. Essentially, the federal government turns state and local police into de facto federal agencies.

State action can effectively derail the development of federal collection of biometric data. If states limit the use of drones, ALPRs, stingray devices and other technology as it develops, and refuse to share the information collected legally by state and local law enforcement, it will limit the information the feds can obtain. They can’t access data that doesn’t exist.

If enough states pass legislation limiting the collection of private information, require warrants and place strict parameters around information sharing, it can effectively thwart these federal programs.

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