Digital Lineups

The FBI plans to stick the mugs of almost 1 in 6 Americans into a facial recognition database by next year.


The FBI is rapidly automating the process of identifying crime suspects by running photographs through a digital police lineup. Records released by the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reveal plans to stick the mugs of almost one in six Americans into the Next Generation Identification program's facial recognition database by next year.

Combined with the feds' tolerance for a remarkably high false-positive rate, the chances of getting fingered for somebody else's misdeeds are getting pretty good.

According to Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the EFF, the FBI plans to have as many as 52 million photos in its database by 2015. The system is designed to be capable of conducting tens of thousands of searches every day. Those 52 million images will include a planned 4.3 million faces photographed for non-criminal purposes and another million drawn from ill-defined sources. Searches will be run against all records in the database, no matter how they were obtained.

"This is a problem because we do not know what rules govern these categories, where the data comes from, how the images are gathered, who has access to them, and whose privacy is impacted," warns EFF's Lynch.

Whatever the source of the images, there's no guarantee they'll be correctly matched to suspects. Last year, the Electronic Privacy Information Center extracted a separate set of documents from the FBI revealing that federal specifications on the Next Generation Identification system facial recognition software allow for tagging "an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20 percent of the time."

NEXT: "What I Did After Police Killed My Son": The Argument for Independent Review Commissions

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  1. This is totally not creepy or dystopian sounding at all.

    1. The problem with this isn’t that it works, but that it doesn’t work.

      Imagine if fingerprints were as difficult to identify as faces?

      1. Imagine if DNA tests were believed by the public and the courts to be 100% accurate, while in reality the results are vulnerable to false positives. No link, sorry, but I know Reason has done stories about this.

  2. Anything to be safe, I hope they are adding squirrels.

    1. I heard they already added Rocky but that Bullwinkle’s nasal point is the reason they need the next generation software.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this, same as license plate scanners and other such things. Nothing can prevent these scanners and databases as technology marches on. The only difference between the government ones and private ones is accountability. Private ones will always be ahead on the tech curve, but’s of no matter since the government will either subcontract to them or coerce them into helping.

    The only way I see of dealing with these is to recognize how sloppy they are (20% false positives?!?) and know that they will be drowning in piss poor data. Our duty, therefore, is to help them drown, and I have no doubt that free markets will dream up ways far beyond government capability of responding.

    1. It’s the mindset that a safe society requires the state have the ability to identify every human at any point in time. No, I don’t like that mindset.

  4. 52 million human faces in a database–and millions more to be added–ready for a boot to stamp on them forever.

    “My future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”… and a different mask every time I leave the house.

  5. I think I like the sound of that dude.

  6. It sounds like it already has better accuracy than drug sniffing dogs.

    It will probably immediately become probable cause for searches or detention without warrants, adding people to no-fly or sexual predator lists, denial of firearm purchases, concealed carry permits, or other government licenses, asset seizures, SWAT raids, detention without trial as a terrorist, or just letting cops gun them down.

    1. I have better accuracy than a drug sniffing dog.

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