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The FBI's Biometric Database: Is Your Face Already in It?

It's the stuff science fiction movies are made of: A massive database that holds the one-of-a-kind biological data to identify anyone in the world instantly, and it's coming to the United States by 2013.

privacy scans

Technology is underway that could one day capture a scan of your iris or your face from 15 feet or 200 yards away, respectively.

The FBI is planning to spend $1 billion to create the world's largest computer database of biometric information, which includes physical characteristics such as fingerprints, palm patterns, iris images, facial images, scars, and even patterns of how people walk and talk.

The system, called Next Generation Identification, is intended to collect information for identification and forensic purposes. Although the FBI maintains that terrorists and criminal suspects will be the ones targeted, privacy advocates say the database could abuse your civil liberties.

The Size of Two Football Fields

Currently, an underground FBI facility that spans the length of two football fields holds an FBI server that receives identification requests at a rate of about one every second.

Digital fingerprints can be compared against the 55 million sets already in the database. Soon, however, palm prints, iris images, and face-shape data will also be comparable.

While most people would have no problem with such data being used to track down terrorists or other criminals, there is one caveat.

More than 55 percent of current identification requests come not for forensic purposes but to conduct background checks on civilians in government jobs, or among people working with children and the elderly.

Right now, the fingerprints taken for such requests are destroyed once the check is complete. Under the new system, an employer would have a choice to keep the employee's biometric data on file, and be notified if the person ever commits a crime.

background check fbi

If you have to undergo a background check for your employer, the FBI may one day hold on to your fingerprints and palm patterns so they can notify your employer if you commit a crime.

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, researchers from the West Virginia University Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR) are developing technology that could capture your iris images from 15 feet away, and your facial image from 200 yards away.

So your personal information may one day be contained in the system without your ever knowing it was taken.

Though the technology will take a few years to perfect, the FBI is very interested in using such techniques to covertly capture biometric data.

"You Can't Just Get a New Eyeball"

The other concern has to do with security. Computer systems are notorious for getting broken into, and there is no telling what chaos could result if a malicious person got a hold of your personal biometric data.

"Unlike say, a credit card number, biometric data is forever," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster in the Washington Post. "If someone steals and spoofs your iris image, you can't just get a new eyeball."

Concerns have also been raised that the technology is progressing before any studies have shown it to be effective. One study on current face-recognition technology found it had a 60 percent success rate when the lighting was right, and only a 10-20 percent success rate at night.

Nonetheless, the FBI is proceeding full-speed ahead with the billion-dollar project.

As Thomas E. Bush III, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, told the Washington Post, "Bigger. Faster. Better. That's the bottom line."

Recommended Reading

Proposed National Database Sparks Privacy Controversy

The Sky-Drone: Is This Eye in the Sky the Future of Crime-Fighting?

Sources December 22, 2007

The Register December 24, 2007

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