FBI pushes S-COMM to spur public acceptance of massive new biometrics database

biometricsThe FBI is moving ahead with the implementation of Next Generation Identification (NGI), a national biometric identification system that is poised to bring about a major shift in the way the agency tracks people across the nation.  When it becomes fully operational in 2014, NGI will contain biometric data on people’s palmprints, scars, marks, tattoos, voices, irises, and facial measurements. It is designed to collect even more types of data in the future, possibly including DNA.

The FBI says NGI will facilitate the processing and exchange of information for more than 18,000 local, state, federal, and international agencies, thereby enhancing our nation’s ability to apprehend criminals and terrorists. The process of collecting the vast amount of biometric data needed for NGI has already begun. Internal documents recently made public in a lawsuit against the FBI have revealed that it is official FBI policy to collect “as much biometric data as possible within information technology systems” and to “work aggressively to build biometric databases that are comprehensive and international in scope.”

The lawsuit is based on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain information on the controversial and misleadingly named Secure Communities program (S-COMM). S-COMM is operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) and requires law enforcement agencies to submit to the FBI the fingerprints of all suspects they detain, including those who ultimately are not convicted, ostensibly to identify undocumented criminals for deportation.

In a gigantic $1 billion deal, Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense company, is deploying the program over many years and in seven increments in collaboration with the FBI. As of last March, the first two increments were complete and the next three were in progress. Among the capabilities currently being implemented are palmprint and facial searches and a database with a peculiar name—the Repository of Individuals of Special Concern (RISC)—which the FBI says will streamline search procedures for “wanted persons, sexual offender registry subjects, known or appropriately suspected terrorists, and other persons of special interest.” (It is unclear what exactly a “person of special interest” is.) RISC will also allow law enforcement agents to conduct database searches from mobile devices based on the biometrics of suspects encountered on the field.

NGI will combine and replace two existing databases, the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and the DHS’ Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT), which were initially designed to be independent of each other and not interoperable. Each of these two databases claims to be the largest biometric database in the world.

NGI presents considerable threats to our civil rights and liberties. As Sunita Patel, staff attorney at the Center of Constitutional Rights—a plaintiff in the FOIA lawsuit against the FBI—points out, NGI raises concerns about government invasion of privacy, expanding federal government surveillance, and the increased risks of errors and vulnerability to hackers and identity thieves.

For one thing, NGI significantly increases the potential that abuse will go unpunished because it makes surveillance much more seamless. Take for example iris scans and facial recognition technology. In addition to its own sources, the FBI will be able to obtain data from “seized systems” and “open sources”  which include images available on the Internet and surveillance equipment such as traffic and CCTV cameras. Considering that such devices are all but everywhere, the FBI effectively will have the ability to track an unsuspecting individual’s every movement.

The FBI knows that NGI will raise many concerns and hopes to allay them by focusing the public’s attention on the benefits of S-COMM.

The documents obtained in the FOIA lawsuit have shown that the FBI is strongly in favor of making S-COMM mandatory for local and state law enforcement agencies. S-COMM clearly constitutes a golden opportunity to populate the NGI databases.

The FBI’s stance, nevertheless, can be explained based on another rationale that is tied to NGI. From its inception, proponents of S-COMM have touted its ability to identify criminal aliens for deportation. Given the current economic climate, such arguments resonate with many Americans. After all, undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, the thinking goes, should be deported especially when jobs are scarce and the national unemployment rate stands above 8.5 percent. Thus, the FBI is capitalizing on popular sentiment against illegal immigration to convince the American public that draconian measures that permit the federal government to collect biometrics data on citizens and non-citizens alike are necessary and should be made mandatory for all law enforcement agencies. Once the American public becomes convinced of the need for S-COMM, it will be much easier to argue that NGI, too, is necessary.

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