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FBI: Facial Recognition System at “Full Operational Capability”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation says its facial recognition technology that stores millions of mug shots and other photos is out of its testing phase and is at “full operational capability.”

The Next Generation Identification (NGI) System, combined with criminal fingerprints, “will provide the nation’s law enforcement community with an investigative tool that provides an image-searching capability of photographs associated with criminal identities,” the FBI said in a press release Monday.

The full release of the FBI facial recognition technology comes three months after James Comey, the FBI director, announced that the agency was “piloting the use of mug shots, along with our fingerprint database, to see if we can find bad guys by matching pictures with mug shots.”

Under the facial recognition program, law enforcement agencies will have the ability to cross-check images with those found in other criminal databases.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained records from the bureau under the Freedom of Information Act showing that the facial recognition database will have as many as 52 million images of by next year, including those of innocent people. The database’s numbers are expected to rapidly multiply for a number of reasons. One being that during 2012, more than 12 million arrests were made according to publicly released FBI statistics.

The FBI demonstrated the power of their facial recognition technology in August, when a U.S. fugitive that had been on the run for 14 years was apprehended in Nepal after the authorities scanned his FBI “wanted” poster with the bureau’s technology. The man arrested was Neil Stammer, and was a result of the State Department testing the technology software to identify passport fraud. The department scanned into the biometric database containing Stammer’s most-wanted poster and returned a match, but with a different name identifying him on his passport.

The Electronic Private Information Center that too obtained FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act, said the technology could fail 20 percent of the time, leading to innocent people being arrested, detained or subject to a law enforcement investigation.

Quoted by the FBI, the “Next Generation Identification” system began development in 2011, with its initial focus on enhancing fingerprint technology.

“The NGI system has introduced enhanced automated fingerprint and latent search capabilities, mobile fingerprint identification, and electronic image storage, all while adding enhanced processing speed and automation for electronic exchange of fingerprints to more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies and other authorized criminal justice partners 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” the bureau said in a statement.

The EFF stated the FOIA documents they obtained from the FBI showed that mug shots were not the only photos being added into the database. EFF said the documents they obtained stated that the FBI projects that by 2015, the facial recognition database will contain 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes.

“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. However, the FBI has never before collected a photograph along with those prints. 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.

In the past, the FBI has never linked the criminal and non-criminal fingerprint databases. This has meant that any search of the criminal print database (such as to identify a suspect or a latent print at a crime scene) would not touch the non-criminal database. This will also change with NGI. Now every record—whether criminal or non—will have a “Universal Control Number” (UCN), and every search will be run against all records in the database. This means that even if you have never been arrested for a crime, if your employer requires you to submit a photo as part of your background check, your face image could be searched—and you could be implicated as a criminal suspect—just by virtue of having that image in the non-criminal file,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney, Jennifer Lynch wrote.

The FBI and Department of State contracted MorphoTrust to build the next generation facial recognition technology.

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