FBI Facial Recognition Software

September 18, 2014

On Monday, the FBI announced the full operational capacity of new facial recognition software, the Next Generation Identification System (NGI). The FBI press release indicates the system was developed “to expand the Bureau’s biometric identification capabilities, ultimately replacing the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) in addition to adding new services and capabilities.” The $1 billion dollar program also features the “rap back” function, “which will allow police to continuously monitor if ex-convicts, teachers or ‘individuals holding positions of trust’ break the law.”
However, some civil liberty groups fear that this system will infringe too much on citizen privacy. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) fears the database will include criminal as well as non-criminal images. The Foundation claims that pursuant to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the FBI will have access to 52 million images by the end of 2015, including 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes.

EFF predicts “if your employer requires you to submit a photo as part of your background check, your face image could be searched—and you could be implicated as a criminal suspect—just by virtue of having that image in the non-criminal file.”

While this seems like a scary prospect, how likely is it that you could be implicated as a criminal suspect?
EFF claims that the system will only have an 85% of correctly identifying a suspect, as compared with Facebook’s Deepface recognition system with a 97% accuracy rate. However, the FBI argues that, because the “candidate list” produced is an “investigative lead” and not an identification, there is by definition no chance that an innocent person will be falsely identified by the system.  Shahar Belkin, CTO of FST Biometrics, says that the FBI cannot match Facebook’s capabilities partially because of the “quality of the pictures the FBI is using. Belkin says facial recognition systems typically need to photograph your face straight-on, no more than 15 degrees off the center axis.” In fact, “Facebook and the Manhattan district attorney’s office are in a bitter fight over the government’s demand for the contents of hundreds of Facebook accounts.”
So where does this leave someone like me? I have an unusual last name that a prospective employer would probably identify from a perfunctory Google image search anyway. Should I even bother to adjust the privacy settings on my Facebook account? Are success stories, like the FBI capture of a 14-year fugitive Neil Stammer with the help of this software worth the possible infringement on my privacy? The FBI’s Brian Edgell, unit chief of the implementation and transition unit, NGI, says that the “NGI did not require the creation of any new authority for the FBI. The FBI had all the authority to do everything I’ve already described. We just didn’t have the technology to do it or the business process to go along with it, so now we are matching up to our authorities to do these things.” Maybe this type of facial recognition software is simply “the new normal.”