PINDROP BLOG

EFF and Others Tell FBI Access to Biometric Database is Vital

The EFF and several other civil liberties groups have sent comments to the FBI, saying it’s imperative that the bureau not be allowed to keep its massive biometric database out of reach of the Privacy Act.

The huge collection of fingerprints, facial recognition data, palm prints, and other identifiers has been built up by the FBI over several years through a variety of methods. Some of the data comes from criminals, but much of it derives from background checks on people who apply for sensitive jobs, welfare benefits, and various licenses. The Next Generation Identification System, as it’s known, also includes data from a number of agencies outside the United States, and the FBI has requested that the federal government grant them an exemption to exclude the NGI database from Privacy Act disclosures.

The FBI says that giving access to the database “could compromise sensitive law enforcement information, disclose information which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of another’s personal privacy; reveal a sensitive investigative technique; could provide information that would allow a subject to avoid detection or apprehension; or constitute a potential danger to the health or safety of law enforcement personnel, confidential sources, and witnesses.”

“The FBI has sidestepped the Privacy Act as it has expanded NGI.”

The comments submitted Wednesday by the EFF, ACLU, and several other groups say that keeping the NGI database out of the public’s reach would prevent citizens from being able to access their own data.

“The FBI has sidestepped the Privacy Act as it has expanded NGI, essentially saying ‘just trust us’ with highly personal and private data,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “But the FBI hasn’t proved itself to be worthy of the public’s trust. Exempting NGI from the Privacy Act will eliminate our rights to access our own records and take action against the government when it make mistakes with that data. The Privacy Act is only the barest of protection for Americans, but the FBI wants to escape from even that basic responsibility.”

One of the major concerns civil liberties groups and privacy advocates have with the database in particular and biometric identifiers in general is the inaccuracy of facial recognition.

“Our message to the FBI is that citizens deserve the right to know what information it has on them, and the bureau must be obligated to correct inaccurate data. Its attempt to skirt these rules must be rejected,” Lynch said.

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