Nearly a decade ago, fueled by fears of another 9/11-style attack, the FBI signed a $1 billion contract with military behemoth Lockheed Martin to develop and launch the unit, dubbed Next Generation Identification (NGI). The FBI began with a small pilot program in 2011. In late 2014, the facial recognition program finally became fully operational.
While facial recognition technologies and algorithms conjure images of a “Minority Report”-like control room, the reality is a bit more prosaic. Just as no two people have the same fingerprints, no two people have the same face. The technology essentially measures minute distances in a person’s face and logs the information. While these methods are still in their infancy, FBI officials say biometric technologies could help law enforcement locate and identify a suspect using surveillance videos, mug shots — or even photos taken from Facebook and Twitter.
According to unreleased FBI data provided to IBT in February, the agency had, as of February, processed a total of 77,136 suspect photos and sent police 9,303 “likely candidates” since 2011. The FBI would not comment on how many of those cases led to an arrest.
In many ways, the FBI’s biometric program is an extension of the modern-day surveillance technologies that are making average citizens increasingly uncomfortable. Long gone are the days of clunky wiretaps and officers using telephoto lenses from disguised vans. Now local law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on sophisticated technology — largely sourced from the U.S. military — like Stingray devices, which intercept cell phone conversations, and police drones for aerial surveillance.
While federal officials and law enforcement hail the NGI program as a futuristic way to track terrorists and criminals, others have been notably less enthusiastic. Since the program’s inception, national privacy groups have argued that biometric collection programs like NGI encroach on civil liberties. In the name of security and public safety, many advocates say the U.S. government is increasing its surveillance, through programs like NGI, on everyday citizens who have done nothing wrong.
“What we’re seeing is how counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics are being codified into everyday policing,” says Hamid Khan, a privacy advocate in Los Angeles and the founder of a grassroots group called Stop LAPD Spying. “In essence, we’re all suspects.”
Fingerprints are still the largest source of biometric information used by the FBI, but the agency is branching out.PHOTO: ERIC MARKOWITZ
The fear, of course, is that in this push for more security, Americans will inevitably lose their rights to privacy. This debate is raging now more than ever. On Feb. 16, just weeks after NGI opened its headquarters in a sprawling glass office tower in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly announced that his company would oppose an order giving the FBI “backdoor” access to the iPhone of one of the terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in November.
While the FBI has argued (but has since retracted) that obtaining access to the shooter’s phone could provide valuable information on other suspects, Apple has protested the government’s reach into its technology. “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” Cook wrote.
Some, like Khan, believe the FBI is already doing that with its NGI biometric program.
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