The Cops Are Interested in Your Tattoos

The FBI hopes to track gang members with bio-metrics, but may be tracking innocent people too.

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In early 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arrested 1,133 alleged gang members in multiple cities across the United States. The operation was dubbed Project Shadowfire and if you wanted a close up look at the specifics of a gang arrest, the videos of the arrests released to the public by the feds are a good place to start—officers are seen cuffing potential gang members, fingerprinting them, and photographing their tattoos.

Law enforcement has looked at and recorded tattoos on alleged gang members for a long time, but recently law enforcement has been looking to automate the process. That means moving away from binders with photographs of tattoos and toward computerized databases that can analyze similarities in design. The process is called bio-metrics, and law enforcement has already been using it to digitally scan your fingerprints, faces and irises to easily ascertain your identity.

"The one thing that makes tattoos different is that they're elective," says Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "You choose to put them on you because they are something you want to express about yourself."

That could include designs as innocuous as a flower on your ankle or barbed wire around your bicep, as well as deeply personal, political, cultural or religious symbols that have nothing to do with gang life or crime of any sort. That's why Maass says using a database of tattoos may seem effective when going after criminal street gangs. But, the practice may also put innocent people with tattoos under the microscope of law enforcement—you know, those people allowed to charge you with a crime.

Maass points to the six-pointed star as an example. "That's something that you usually associate with Judaism. However, that is also the symbol for a gang in Chicago," Maas explains, referencing the Gangster Disciples from the city's south side. That means if law enforcement enters the six-pointed star into a gang database hoping to find members of the Gangster Disciples, they may end up pulling up innocent people who just wanted express their pride in Jewish heritage by getting the star put on their skin.

Further, even if the police officers could narrow down a gang symbol they could search for in a database, they wouldn't be able to make up for the fact that some gang members leave gangs and move on with their lives, meaning those former gang members may become the targets of harassment by cops over meaningless markings.

Some of the initial research for tattoo recognition came from the FBI and the government research group National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who partner on bio-metrics. Maass and EFF have been critical of research that has come out of this partnership because they say it threatens privacy and free speech.

NIST obtained over 15,000 images of tattoos from the FBI and handed them over to third parties, including private companies and universities, to see if they could come up with effective algorithms for matching tattoos. The idea was to effectively group together gangs into a network, but the trouble was probably something you'd expect. "In the research they were frequently using images like the cross, Jesus on the crucifix, hands praying with a rosary. Those were images they used time and time again," says Maass. "In practice, with this research, once you put one cross up there, you are pulling up everyone else who has a cross and ultimately creating a list of people who have tattoos of a certain religion."

NIST denied this, saying that "the goal of NIST's research is to help ensure tattoo matching technologies are evaluated using sound science to improve accuracy and minimize mismatches. The NIST research is not about discerning meaning from tattoos or categorizing people based on tattoos."

But regardless of the intent, the ability to match or find similarity in tattoos is the point of the research, and even though NIST says they aren't discerning meaning, the cops could definitely discern meaning. After all, the FBI has a well-publicized history of profiling people with their religion in mind, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the late 1970s to Muslim mosques years after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

"I do see that there is a public safety interest on law enforcement to track gang members," says Maass. "But the question is, at what point are we talking about a gang or we're just talking about a club of people, or people who have a First Amendment right to associate."

Music by Kevin Macleod, Puddle of Infinity, Chris Zabriskie.

Images by Wikipedia, dataworksplus.com, tattoosforyou.org, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Alexis Garcia and Alex Manning.

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  1. That means moving away from binders with photographs of tattoos and toward computerized databases that can analyze similarities in design.

    Huh? What makes you think that they haven’t already digitized photos of tattoos for a long time?

    I know for a fact that at least two states did because I was on the software development team that put those states’ CJIS systems on the web. Digitized mug books have been a thing for quite a long time, and digitized photos of tattoos are already in information systems. The only thing that might be new under the sun here is starting sharing initiatives for computer analysis of this already existing data.

    Getting bureaucratic fiefdoms to cooperate is generally difficult, so the usual question is to ask “where does the funding come from?” Answer that question and you’re likely to get the truth on how likely it is.

    1. Maybe the new thing is running analytics on the photos?

      1. That may well be, but I already said so. 😉

  2. reason number 8 or 800 that covering yourself in permanent ink is not very smart.
    Right up there with the enlarged ear lobe thing. How can you not know that you will look like a complete fool when you are 45?

    1. reason #1 – Ink is ugly.

      1. That’s another one for the list.

      2. to each their own. I like tattoos but i dont have anything worth while tattooing to my body. If there was something that meaningful i would.

        Closest thing i would do would be something liberty/freedom base but i don’t know what.

        I saw this and this is one thing i would consider but i still wouldn’t do it just because i feel it isn’t meaningful enough.

        I live and die by my principles which is why something principled or freedom/rights base i would get tattooed or someone who is principled i respect.

        Like this:
        http://tinyurl.com/hgqv8y4
        http://tinyurl.com/zmmxjk2

        i have a lot of respect for that monk and this is one of only a few things i would considering getting tattooed on me but still don’t feel it meets my criteria.

        1. These are some quotes i thought too but still don’t feel its worth it.
          “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
          “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government”
          We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
          (or my slight edited version of this. Several versions exist and i would pick which i liked most.

          These are things i think are decent to tattoo but i still haven’t found anything perfect yet. Only late 20s and still got time to find something worth tattooing

    2. I just assume anyone doing those things is confident of never having to work a normal job for the rest of their lives.

      Criminals, sports figures, etc.

      1. I always like when college athletes complain they don’t have money to buy a hamburger on Saturday night, but are entirely covered in tattoos which I assume cost money.

        1. A lot of money. Getting your whole arm done or your back or something costs many hundreds of dollars.

      2. Plus tattoo artists. I have a friend who does that and at one point he lasered off a bunch of his older ones because he was running out of space to practice and have others work on.

      3. I watch this “true life” show on A&E called Nightwatch. Pretty much all of the EMTs on the show (takes place in NOLA) have various versions of earlobe enlargements, sleeve tats, weird piercings, etc. I say they can do whatever the fuck they want, because they’re hardcore badasses. Way more badass than 99.9999% of the population.

        1. Why are they so badass, just because they reach up into the gates of Heaven and drag your ass screaming back to the land of the living??

      4. What an out-dated assumption.

        I work in a professional office, all white-collar middle class workers. Of the under-forty crowd, probably a good quarter have tattoos, including at least one guy with sleeve tats. Of the over-forty crowd, I know of at least technician with sleeve tats.

        Our janitors? Most have tattoos.

        The taboo of tattoos, at least when it comes to non-face, non-hand areas, is much much weaker then it used to be.

    3. The enlarged ear lobe thing cuts out the time element.

    4. Rufus: “What’s your tattoo”

      Tattoo Girl: “It’s a gender neutral butterfly metaphorically giving birth to the universe with my child – Infinity – helping in its creation. Duh.”

      Rufus (looks closer squinting eyes): Looks like a Rorschach ink splot. So you get that in your favor.

  3. This is why I never got any tattoos. That ink is perfect for rad scanning, just like with money. You can’t hide.

  4. innocent people with tattoos

    Good one.

    1. So all those Jews who got numbers tattooed on them at the concentration camps were guilty. I knew it!

      1. Too soon?

  5. Maass points to the six-pointed star as an example. “That’s something that you usually associate with Judaism. However, that is also the symbol for a gang in Chicago,”

    The (((Crips))) or the (((Bloods)))?

    1. [climbing out from under desk after suppressed convulsive laughter subsided]

    2. The (((Chooms)))?

    3. And Jews aren’t likely to have it tattooed on them.

      1. Cue joke about not wanting to be buried in a Jewish cemetary.

    4. I can’t wait until they start going tracking UN diplomats.

  6. You know who else tracked people by tattoos…

    1. The International Contract Agency?

    2. The beast of Revelation?

      And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

      1. Ok, THAT was funny.

      2. You know, if we passed a law that required that all espionage be conducted by midgets, I’m not even sure I’d object. There aren’t enough of them for it to be a really big branch of government, and it’s not like they don’t have certain qualifications for the job.

        1. Let the midget breeding program commence!

          1. I was going to make a joke about “anything you subsidize” but figured that someone in the commentariat would oblige. Glad to see that I wasn’t wrong in this case. 😉

            1. The commentariat abides.

        2. “There aren’t enough [midgets] for it to be a really big branch of government […]”
          Ouch. That one stung.

          1. 😀 Jokes are best done when dressed up for a cold day: in layers.

            What midgets may lack in stature, they can make up for in heart, wit, and guile. Example: Tyrion is an inspiration to all.

    3. The Yakuza?

    4. The government of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho?

    1. That explains why they’re all running out and getting tattoos.

      1. +1 Council-Housed And Violent

    2. “This report paints a deeply concerning picture of a generation who feel their ability to shape their own future is slipping away from them.”

      That’s why we’re going to create a new government office to help them live the lives they were meant to.

  7. (pours 40 out for Mike Riggs)

  8. Tag, you’re it!

  9. I’m okay with tattoos and piercings and those inexplicable ear things. If you tried to pass a law forcing certain people to wear an “I’m a moron” sign around their necks, people would complain. But if they are willing to voluntarily make this known, it’s okay by me.

    1. +1 “no ragrets”

    2. “YOUR NEXT”

      That said, I have a Deinonychus antirrhopus tattooed on my shoulder.

      1. My next what? The suspense is killing me! Where is his BFF who has the rest of the message?

          1. It’s like people aren’t even clever enough to name their fists ‘Pain’ and ‘Fury’ anymore.

            1. I showed this picture to others and it seems a lot of them could not grasp that I formed a sentence with the pictures.

              The joke (I know this spoils it), with punctuation:

              Your next Taco Bell survival: pure hell.

  10. Tattoos are such a mixed bag: some of the finest people I’ve ever met are covered in them, but most every single supreme asshat under 50 I’ve known is covered in them as well.

    1. Its almost like how/whether you decorate yourself doesn’t really align with what kind of person you are.

      *Disclosure: I have a tattoo. Lost a bet with Mrs. Dean.

  11. I recently discovered that Norse mythology has a jotunn/goddess who represents skiing, mountains, bow hunting, and winter. If I ever get a tat, she will be it.

  12. I have noticed that a lot of gang members wear jeans.
    So we arrest everyone wearing jeans?
    I am not sure I like taxation WITH representation.

  13. So is the fear that tattoos may be a new bio-metric tool allowing identification when other, more traditional, identification is not available? Is this really back to that “we need more fake IDs” topic?

    Or is the fear that cops are going to profile people based on their tattoos?

    ’cause both of those are already things. Tattoos are already a way to identify people when their dental work is missing, and police have been profiling people with tattoos since they were actually taboos.

    Yeah, I don’t think I can bother getting worked up over this. It’s interesting applying bio-metrics to new areas and seeing how reliable you can make it, but the worst-case scenario is that police will continue profiling people based on the tattoos that they’re already basing their profiling on, which just isn’t that alarming to me.

  14. That means moving away from binders with photographs of tattoos and toward computerized databases that can analyze similarities in design.

    We have those; I think they are gay fetish sites or something.

  15. I always like when college athletes complain they don’t have money to buy a hamburger on Saturday night, but are entirely covered in tattoos which I assume cost money.
    miere de manuka
    apisan forte

    1. start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this ? 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail?

      ??? http://www.JobMax6.com

  16. Ella . although Margaret `s article is super, on friday I got a new McLaren F1 after having earned $4887 this-past/four weeks and just over ten grand last-month . this is actually my favourite-work Ive had . I actually started six months/ago and right away began to earn minimum $82 p/h
    . Read more on this site…..

    ================= http://www.homejobs7.com

  17. Ella . although Margaret `s article is super, on friday I got a new McLaren F1 after having earned $4887 this-past/four weeks and just over ten grand last-month . this is actually my favourite-work Ive had . I actually started six months/ago and right away began to earn minimum $82 p/h
    . Read more on this site…..

    ================= http://www.homejobs7.com

  18. Ella . although Margaret `s article is super, on friday I got a new McLaren F1 after having earned $4887 this-past/four weeks and just over ten grand last-month . this is actually my favourite-work Ive had . I actually started six months/ago and right away began to earn minimum $82 p/h
    . Read more on this site…..

    ================= http://www.homejobs7.com

  19. Since September 11, 2001, and the inception of the “Patriot Act,” there have been more people killed in this country, until present day, by so-called “peace officers,” police, cops, “law enforcement,” et al, than those killed during this same period of time in Iraq. It would seem reasonable to question the motives of these people whose mantra is “To Serve and Protect.” To “serve and protect” whom is one question that comes to my mind. The other question is what Ayn Rand once asked: “Who will protect us from our protectors?”

    “Law enforcement” should never be the issue; rather, when a “law has been violated,” the real question should be, is there a victim. Has, indeed, a human being’s rights been violated? If no such violation has occurred, then there cannot be a crime. When anyone is detained or questioned or arrested for other than a very clear and demonstrable violation of another’s rights, then the person detained or questioned or arrested then becomes a victim, and the perpetrators then become the criminals, NO MATTER WHO THEY ARE, OR WHAT OFFICE THEY HOLD, OR WHETHER THEY WEAR A BADGE AND UNIFORM AND CARRY A GUN, THEY ARE CRIMINALS AND SHOULD BE DEALT WITH AS SUCH!!

    Bill Ernstberger

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