[News] FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics
news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Dec 23 15:49:52 EST 2007
FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics
$1 Billion Project to Include Images of Irises and Faces
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007; A01
CLARKSBURG, W. Va. -- The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to
build the world's largest computer database of peoples' physical
characteristics, a project that would give the government
unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States
Digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns are already
flowing into FBI systems in a climate-controlled, secure basement
here. Next month, the FBI intends to award a 10-year contract that
would significantly expand the amount and kinds of biometric
information it receives. And in the coming years, law enforcement
authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns,
face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk
and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists. The
FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of
employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the
employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.
"Bigger. Faster. Better. That's the bottom line," said Thomas E. Bush
III, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information
Services Division, which operates the database from its headquarters
in the Appalachian foothills.
The increasing use of biometrics for identification is raising
questions about the ability of Americans to avoid unwanted scrutiny.
It is drawing criticism from those who worry that people's bodies
will become de facto national identification cards. Critics say that
such government initiatives should not proceed without proof that the
technology really can pick a criminal out of a crowd.
The use of biometric data is increasing throughout the government.
For the past two years, the Defense Department has been storing in a
database images of fingerprints, irises and faces of more than 1.5
million Iraqi and Afghan detainees, Iraqi citizens and foreigners who
need access to U.S. military bases. The Pentagon also collects DNA
samples from some Iraqi detainees, which are stored separately.
The Department of Homeland Security has been using iris scans at some
airports to verify the identity of travelers who have passed
background checks and who want to move through lines quickly. The
department is also looking to apply iris- and face-recognition
techniques to other programs. The DHS already has a database of
millions of sets of fingerprints, which includes records collected
from U.S. and foreign travelers stopped at borders for criminal
violations, from U.S. citizens adopting children overseas, and from
visa applicants abroad. There could be multiple records of one person's prints.
"It's going to be an essential component of tracking," said Barry
Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project of the
American Civil Liberties Union. "It's enabling the Always On
If successful, the system planned by the FBI, called Next Generation
Identification, will collect a wide variety of biometric information
in one place for identification and forensic purposes.
In an underground facility the size of two football fields, a request
reaches an FBI server every second from somewhere in the United
States or Canada, comparing a set of digital fingerprints against the
FBI's database of 55 million sets of electronic fingerprints. A
possible match is made -- or ruled out--as many as 100,000 times a day.
Soon, the server at CJIS headquarters will also compare palm prints
and, eventually, iris images and face-shape data such as the shape of
an earlobe. If all goes as planned, a police officer making a traffic
stop or a border agent at an airport could run a 10-fingerprint check
on a suspect and within seconds know if the person is on a database
of the most wanted criminals and terrorists. An analyst could take
palm prints lifted from a crime scene and run them against the
expanded database. Intelligence agents could exchange biometric
More than 55 percent of the search requests now are made for
background checks on civilians in sensitive positions in the federal
government, and jobs that involve children and the elderly, Bush
said. Currently those prints are destroyed or returned when the
checks are completed. But the FBI is planning a "rap-back" service,
under which employers could ask the FBI to keep employees'
fingerprints in the database, subject to state privacy laws, so that
if that employees are ever arrested or charged with a crime, the
employers would be notified.
Advocates say bringing together information from a wide variety of
sources and making it available to multiple agencies increases the
chances to catch criminals. The Pentagon has already matched several
Iraqi suspects against the FBI's criminal fingerprint database. The
FBI intends to make both criminal and civilian data available to
authorized users, officials said. There are 900,000 federal, state
and local law enforcement officers who can query the fingerprint
database today, they said.
The FBI's biometric database, which includes criminal history
records, communicates with the Terrorist Screening Center's database
of suspects and the National Crime Information Center database, which
is the FBI's master criminal database of felons, fugitives and
The FBI is building its system according to standards shared by
Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
At the West Virginia University Center for Identification Technology
Research (CITeR), 45 minutes north of the FBI's biometric facility in
Clarksburg, researchers are working on capturing images of people's
irises at distances of up to 15 feet, and of faces from as far away
as 200 yards. Soon, those researchers will do biometric research for the FBI.
Covert iris- and face-image capture is several years away, but it is
of great interest to government agencies.
Think of a Navy ship approaching a foreign vessel, said Bojan Cukic,
CITeR's co-director. "It would help to know before you go on board
whether the people on that ship that you can image from a distance,
whether they are foreign warfighters, and run them against a database
of known or suspected terrorists," he said.
Skeptics say that such projects are proceeding before there is
evidence that they reliably match suspects against a huge database.
In the world's first large-scale, scientific study on how well face
recognition works in a crowd, the German government this year found
that the technology, while promising, was not yet effective enough to
allow its use by police. The study was conducted from October 2006
through January at a train station in Mainz, Germany, which draws
23,000 passengers daily. The study found that the technology was able
to match travelers' faces against a database of volunteers more than
60 percent of the time during the day, when the lighting was best.
But the rate fell to 10 to 20 percent at night.
To achieve those rates, the German police agency said it would
tolerate a false positive rate of 0.1 percent, or the erroneous
identification of 23 people a day. In real life, those 23 people
would be subjected to further screening measures, the report said.
Accuracy improves as techniques are combined, said Kimberly Del
Greco, the FBI's biometric services section chief. The Next
Generation database is intended to "fuse" fingerprint, face, iris and
palm matching capabilities by 2013, she said.
To safeguard privacy, audit trails are kept on everyone who has
access to a record in the fingerprint database, Del Greco said.
People may request copies of their records, and the FBI audits all
agencies that have access to the database every three years, she said.
"We have very stringent laws that control who can go in there and to
secure the data," Bush said.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, said the ability to share data across systems is
problematic. "You're giving the federal government access to an
extraordinary amount of information linked to biometric identifiers
that is becoming increasingly inaccurate," he said.
In 2004, the Electronic Privacy Information Center objected to the
FBI's exemption of the National Crime Information Center database
from the Privacy Act requirement that records be accurate. The group
noted that the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2001 found that
information in the system was "not fully reliable" and that files
"may be incomplete or inaccurate." FBI officials justified that
exemption by claiming that in law enforcement data collection, "it is
impossible to determine in advance what information is accurate,
relevant, timely and complete."
Privacy advocates worry about the ability of people to correct false
information. "Unlike say, a credit card number, biometric data is
forever," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. He
said he feared that the FBI, whose computer technology record has
been marred by expensive failures, could not guarantee the data's
security. "If someone steals and spoofs your iris image, you can't
just get a new eyeball," Saffo said.
In the future, said CITeR director Lawrence A. Hornak, devices will
be able to "recognize us and adapt to us."
"The long-term goal," Hornak said, is "ubiquitous use" of biometrics.
A traveler may walk down an airport corridor and allow his face and
iris images to be captured without ever stepping up to a kiosk and
looking into a camera, he said.
"That's the key," he said. "You've chosen it. You have chosen to say,
'Yeah, I want this place to recognize me.' "
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
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