The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to prevent information about its creepy biometric database on social media, which contains fingerprint, face, iris, and voice scans of millions of Americans, from getting out to the public.
Facebook has been accused of violating the privacy of its users by collecting their facial data, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last week.
This data-collection program led to its well-known automatic face-tagging service. But it also helped Facebook create “the largest privately held stash of biometric face-recognition data in the world,” the Courthouse News Service reports.
The lawsuit alleges that this facial-recognition program violates the privacy of its users, citing an Illinois law called the Illinois Biometrics Information Privacy Acts, which requires companies to get written content from a user if it is collecting biometric data.
Further, according to the statute, the company must state the purpose and length of its data-collection program.
The lead plaintiff, Carlo Licata, claims that Facebook’s biometric program shows “brazen disregard for its users’ privacy writes.” He added that the way changing user settings will not change what biometric data the company collects, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Facebook has been under fire over this feature for years. It first began offering the tagging service through a technology from Israeli company, which Facebook acquired in 2012.
A Senate hearing was held in 2012 to discuss this specific program. At the hearing, Facebook’s Robert Sherman rebutted that the “tag suggestions” program is “merely a ‘convenience feature’ and that users’ data is secure,” according to the report.
The company’s ‘faceprint’ database works only with its own software, and “alone, the templates are useless bits of data,” Sherman said. He said that users can opt out of the feature and their data will be deleted.
In 2012, Facebook stopped offering the facial-recognition feature in Europe because of privacy concerns, according to The New York Times.
Business Insider reached out to Facebook for comment. A spokesperson wrote, “This lawsuit is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Licata’s intention is to get a court injunction that requires Facebook to put a halt to the program.
In early May the U.S. Department of Justice released a proposal which would exempt the FBI’s Biometrics database from public disclosure. Specifically, the proposal would exempt the Next Generation Identification (NGI) System from provisions of the federal Privacy Act, which “requires federal agencies to share information about the records they collect with the individual subject of those records, allowing them to verify and correct them if needed.”
The proposal is open for public comment until June 6, 2016.
Although the database does contain biometric data on convicted criminals, it also contains information on individuals who were only suspected or temporarily detained under the suspicion of a crime. The system also features data from people fingerprinted for jobs, licenses, military or volunteer service, background checks, security clearances, and other government processes.
Essentially the FBI is arguing that it will prevent individuals from knowing if their information is in the massive database if the release of information would “compromise” a law enforcement investigation. Next Gov first reported on the proposal:
“Letting individuals view their own records, or even the accounting of those records, could compromise criminal investigations or ‘national security efforts,’ potentially revealing a ‘sensitive investigative technique’ or information that could help a subject ‘avoid detection or apprehension,’ the draft posting said.
“Another clause requires agencies to keep the records they collect to assure individuals any determination made about them was made fairly. Arguing for an exemption, the FBI posting claimed it is ‘impossible to know in advance what information is accurate, relevant, timely and complete’ for ‘authorized law enforcement purposes.’”
Although the database may contain information about individuals conducting perfectly legal actions and behaviors, the proposal says the FBI should hold the data because “with time, seemingly irrelevant or untimely information may acquire new significance when new details are brought to light.” The FBI claims the information within the database could possibly help with “establishing patterns of activity and providing criminal lead.”
Jeramie Scott, a national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told NextGov that the proposal “would set a worrying precedent in which law enforcement has significant leeway to decide what information to collect without informing the subject.”
Although very little is actually known about the database, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and EPIC have been able to uncover that the FBI would like to track every individual as they move from one location to another. In 2013, EPIC obtained a document which showed, “NGI shall return an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time.”
Once the collection of biometrics becomes standardized, it becomes much easier to locate and track someone across all aspects of their life. EFF believes that perfect tracking is inimical to a free society. A society in which everyone’s actions are tracked is not, in principle, free. It may be a livable society, but would not be our society.
In 2014 the EFF received documents from the FBI related to the NGI system. Based on the records, the EFF estimated that the face recognition component of NGI would include as many as 52 million face images by 2015.
If you are an outspoken activist, have ever been detained, or arrested, your biometrics are more than likely contained in this database. If you have ever applied for a driver’s license or state identification card you are likely in this database. Millions of innocent people are having their biometrics scooped up and logged into another database that federal agents will have unrestricted access to. When combined with cellphone surveillance, aerial surveillance, and every other surveillance tool available to the local, state, and federal agencies, a clear picture of a draconian Surveillance State emerges.
Thankfully, there are examples of individuals working to create technology (here, here) that can combat the pervasive eyes and ears of Big Brother. However, until those counter-surveillance tools are widespread in the mainstream we must take principled action against the Surveillance State. Invest in technologies that promote privacy and protection. Use encrypted chats, emails, and video calls. Learn about the myriad of alternative options available to you. Only by taking action and seeking solutions will we find the path towards a more free world that values privacy of the individual.