Minority Report alert: FBI launching $1 billion face recognition project

fbi face scanning minority reportA little over a year ago, Facebook introduced face recognition software to the masses when it included the feature in its photo uploading process. And the masses, as you may assume, didn’t react all that well. There was plenty of conspiracy theory and privacy-concerned backlash, which died down as soon as everyone started talking about how the service was opt-in only. Since then, the feature has faded into the background and taken its rightful place among other Facebook-announcements-that-cause-us-to-wield-pitchforks-for-a-week-but-then-everyone’s-over-it.

But now, concerns over consumers’ image privacy have been resurrected by a billion dollar FBI project. According to New Scientist, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is launching a $1 billion effort called the Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, which will use face detection as well as “biometrics such as iris scans, DNA analysis, and voice identification to the toolkit.” The system is already being ushered in, as some states have started uploaded images (currently it sounds as if this is limited to mugshots); it’s expected to be implemented nationwide by 2014.

As all things start, intentions are good: Such highly accurate identification systems would be used to focus on criminals faster, result in quicker arrests, and potentially stop illegal activity before it happens. Of course, all of that sounds incredibly Minority Report-ish – including this example use:

“Images of a person of interest from security cameras or publics photos uploaded onto the Internet could be compared against a national repository of images held by the FBI. An algorithm would perform an automatic search and return a list of potential hits for an office to sort through and use as possible leads for an investigation.”

While current states that have participated in the pilot program have been uploading mugshots for the NGI, it’s uncertain whether this will eventually extend to include all of our images. In fact, New Scientist pointedly asked the FBI this question and no response was given.

In case it isn’t clear enough, what we very possibly have in the works here is a national civilian photograph database. Right now, the FBI hasn’t reached that far, but it’s very easy to assume it will – and it’s all legal under the US Privacy Act. 

Before you start pointing fingers at user-facing (pun intended) face recognition software companies out there (think Face.com – now Facebook-owned – and Lambda Labs),know that Facebook wouldn’t have any part in this: I reached out and was told that that simply isn’t how its face recognition system works. “Just giving us a picture and asking us to search our database… it doesn’t work that way,” a Facebook rep tells me. “And it would be incredibly computationally expensive.”

Also, consider the amount of state and federal operations that have your images. Your license, your passport, your public transportation ID… it goes on and on. If the government wants to harness image identification, it can and it will, and it won’t have to rely on social networks for help. That said, our increasing comfort with putting our likenesses all over the Internet is only making it easier for this type of system to be enacted.