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THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION (EFF) is concerned that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plans to maintain a facial recognition database that could include the photos of 52 million US citizens by next year.
The EFF said it has access to FBI documents that suggest it is ramping up the collection of identification data. It said that while fingerprints, eye scans and biometrics are already fair game at the FBI and among law enforcement, this could soon be extended to face photos of anyone, regardless of whether they have been involved in any criminal activity or otherwise.
"EFF received these records in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for information on Next Generation Identification (NGI) - the FBI's massive biometric database that may hold records on as much as one third of the US population," the EFF said in a statement.
"The facial recognition component of this database poses real threats to privacy for all Americans."
The NGI is a case of serious mission creep, according to the EFF, and it reckons that the FBI will build up a collection of 52 million faces by 2015. It said that thousands of images will be collected every day and that tens of thousands of searches will be applied to them.
The main worry is that the database will include all faces, regardless of how they have come the way of the FBI. Anyone who applies for a certain kind of job may be profiled and added to the NGI, warned the EFF.
"One of our biggest concerns about NGI has been the fact that it will include non-criminal as well as criminal face images. Currently, if you apply for any type of job that requires fingerprinting or a background check, your prints are sent to and stored by the FBI in its civil print database," it explained.
"This is changing with NGI. Now an employer could require you to provide a 'mug shot' photo along with your fingerprints. If that's the case, then the FBI will store both your face print and your fingerprints along with your biographic data."
That is one worry, another is about how accurate the NGI is likely to be. The EFF's short answer is "not very accurate at all", and it is anticipating a misfiring system that draws innocent faces into criminal investigations.
"We know from researchers that the risk of false positives increases as the size of the dataset increases - and, at 52 million images, the FBI's face recognition is a very large dataset," it added.
"This means that many people will be presented as suspects for crimes they didn't commit. This is not how our system of justice was designed and should not be a system that Americans tacitly consent to move towards." µ