The Cops Are Interested in Your Tattoos

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


HD Download

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,,, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.