Coalition Says FBI Identification System is Racially Biased

By Kenrya Rankin Jun 01, 2016

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses a facial and fingerprint recognition system—called Next Generation Identification (NGI)—to surveil and identify citizens and non-citizens alike.

On May 5, 2016, the agency proposed exempting the system from some provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, which governs how the federal government collects, uses and shares citizens’ personal info. The FBI says that being subject to those provisions could interfere with “the FBI’s mission to detect, deter, and prosecute crimes and to protect the national security.”

The proposal comes with a 30-day comment period, which is set to end on June 6. But a group of 45 human and privacy rights organizations—including 18 Million Rising, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, National Immigrant Justice Center and National LGBTQ Task Force—is lobbying the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to extend that comment period by another 30 days. It also says that the database is subject to racial bias that could jeopardize communities of color.

The coalition sent the DOJ a letter dated May 27, 2016, that expounds on its argument. From the letter:

The NGI system uses some of the most advanced surveillance technologies known to humankind, including facial recognition, iris scans and fingerprint recognition. It runs on a database holding records on millions of Americans, including millions who have never been accused of a crime. While the database is partially built using mugshots and attest records submitted by state and local law enforcement agencies, it also includes the fingerprints and photos of people getting background checks—and people applying to become permanent residents or naturalized citizens.

As a result, the NGI system may not affect everyone equally. Instead, it likely includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos and immigrants. This is a problem from a technical perspective, as a body of research—including research authors by FBI personnel—suggests that some of the biometrics at the core of NGI, like facial recognition, may misidentify African Americans, young people and women at higher rates than Whites, older people and men, respectively….

The FBI waited over half a decade to publish a basic privacy notice about NGI. Now, the American people have 21 business days to comment on that system—and the FBI’s request to make most of it secret. This is far too little time.

The FBI asks to be exempt from Privacy Act rules that would let people find out whether they’re in the NGI database, whether their profile has been shared with other parts of the government and whether their profile is accurate or full of errors. In certain cases, some of these exemptions may be warranted. As a whole, they seem to go far beyond that…. For example, the Privacy Act generally bars the government from creating databases about the political activities of its citizens. Under the FBI’s proposal, the FBI could violate that rule—and private citizens could never take them to court.

“Some people think that technology is colorblind, but racial biases can be embedded in technological systems of surveillance,” Brandi Collins of Color Of Change said in a statement emailed to Colorlines. “When the criminal justice system disproportionately targets Black communities and the FBI pilots surveillance flights over protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, all people have a right to know whether they are misidentified by this database. The FBI wants to ensure that they are denied this right and their justice.”

Read the full proposal and submit your own formal comment here.