Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What do you give the federal agency that already has everything, including your Fourth Amendment rights?

A Billion dollar biometric database, of course!

The task is already underway. Digital images of fingerprints, palm prints, faces and physical characteristics are already being integrated into the FBI's IT system, and the database is being assembled in a secure, climate-controlled two-acre basement in Clarksburg, VA.

This month, the FBI will award a ten-year contract that will vastly expand the amount and type of biometric information the FBI receives and retains, and will be able to draw on in future law enforcement investigations. The project will give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals world wide. If the planned system, known as Next Generation Identification, is successful, it will collect a wide variety of biometric information in one place for identification and forensic purposes.

The day is nigh upon us when law enforcement authorities will be able to rely on iris patterns, scars, face shape and bone structure data, and perhaps even speech and gait patterns, to solve crimes and identify criminal and terror suspects.

In addition, the FBI will, upon request by employers, retain the fingerprints of employees who undergo criminal background checks so employers can be notified if employees have even minor brushes with the law.

[Keep reading]

Currently, a request reaches the FBI database for searches every second of every day, and about 100,000 matches are either verified or ruled out every day. More than 55 percent of these requests are for background checks of civilians who work for the federal government in sensitive positions, and jobs that involve children and elderly. At the present time, these sets of prints are destroyed or returned to the employers when the checks are completed, but that will soon change. The FBI is planning what they refer to as a "rap-back" service that would allow employers to request the records be retained; that they can be notified if their employee gets popped for an unpaid parking ticket.

As biometrics are used more and more for identification purposes, privacy advocates are asking questions about the ability of Americans to avoid unwanted scrutiny. Why bother with a national ID card when the feds have all the biometric data of your very corporeal being and can ID us all by our cheekbone structure? Some critics say that before the project proceeds, proof should be provided that the technology actually works, and can pick a criminal out of a crowd, rather than just collect a bunch of intimately personal data on Americans. "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 Surveillance Society."

[The Washington Post article originally ran the Saturday before Christmas - the slowest news day of the entire year. I thought the issue merited actual attention, so I waited until now to address it.]