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FBI’s facial recognition database holds records on 1/3 of all Americans

Following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FBI has just released new documents that show the Bureau is making steady progress on its facial recognition database.

The lawsuit called on the FBI to release information pertaining to Next Generation Identification (NGI) — a massive biometric database that the FBI has been amassing for quite some time, and that may hold records on up to a third of the U.S. population.

NGI is essentially a sophisticated new identification database built upon the FBI’s existing fingerprint database, which already contains more than 100 million individual records. In addition to fingerprint data, the system has been built up to include other forms of biometric data, including palm prints, iris scans, and facial recognition info. The NGI system takes all this biometric information and links it to personal details like name, address, driver’s license number, age, race, etc.

The new NGI system will reportedly lump criminal and non-criminal facial information together into a single database.

The records that the EFF received indicate the facial recognition component of NGI has been rapidly expanding over the past few years, and may hold as many as 52 million face images by 2015. In 2012, the NGI contained about 13.6 million different images, representing about seven or eight million individuals. By 2013, that number was up to about 16 million. Due to the fact that the system will be capable of processing 55,000 direct photo enrollments on a daily basis, the database is poised to expand at a drastically accelerated rate.

Aside from its rapid growth, what’s most troubling about the facial recognition database is the fact that the Bureau doesn’t reveal where all of the images are coming from. According to the released documents, the NGI may include over a million face images from “New Repositories” and the “Special Population Cognizant” categories — two places the FBI doesn’t explain anywhere in the documents.  This is a problem because, without this information, we don’t know what rules govern these categories, where the data comes from, how the images are gathered, who has access to them, or whose privacy is impacted.

Even more troubling is the fact the new NGI system will reportedly lump criminal and non-criminal facial information together into a single database, and change the way that records are searched. Previously, criminal and non-criminal databases were searched separately, but NGI gets rid of any separation, giving every record –criminal or non– a Universal Control Number, and running every search against all records in the FBI’s database.

Check out the EFF’s full report for further details.

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