Electronic Frontier Foundation Sues The FBI

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The non-profit organisation demands information about FBI’s Next Generation Identification biometrics database

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the non-profit digital rights group based in the US, is suing the Department of Justice and the FBI for failing to respond to three separate Freedom of Information Act requests related to the soon-to-be-launched Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometrics database.

In a complaint filed with the US District Court for Northern California, the EFF demands information about the size of the database, its reliability and the features implemented to protect privacy of law-abiding citizens.

The EFF says it understands that by 2014 “people may have their photograph—and their unique face print—in a government-maintained criminal database without their knowledge”.

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The FBI is building the NGI database to replace its ageing Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) – one of the biggest databases of its type in the world, with over 100 million biometric records. According to the EFF, the new program will go further and collect iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos and voice data, to be shared between various government organisations.

biomface_2Among the most controversial features of the system is the merger of the civilian and criminal databases in a single repository. The NGI is developed by Lockheed Martin (which was responsible for creation of IAFIS) at a cost of $1 billion, and due to be launched next year.

Between June and July 2012, the EFF submitted three separate Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI, asking for information on data sharing agreements related to the NGI, the reliability of the system, the current number of records in the database and the planned number of records. Convergence of the civil and criminal databases also worries the organisation.

“NGI will result in a massive expansion of government data collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes,” said EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch. “Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images.”

The EFF says that the government agency had simply ignored the requests, so it had no other choice but to attempt to get answers through court. Under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies have a legal obligation to disclose records requested in writing by any person. However, by the time the digital rights group finally gets some answers, it might be too late to stop the introduction of NGI.

“Before the federal government decides to expand its surveillance powers, there needs to be a public debate,” said Lynch. “But there can be no public debate until the details of the program are presented to the public.”

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