FBI sued over facial-recognition database details

The FBI has been sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for access to its biometrics database, arguing that the US agency has failed to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests and is gathering face-recognition data, among other things, with no external governance. The lawsuit, which follows grudging FBI confirmation that it is deploying drones in the US for surveillance purposes, is the culmination of two years of EFF investigation into the Bureau's developing Next Generation Identification (NGI) database, which includes storing a broad range of biometrics.

"The new program will include multiple biometric identifiers, such as iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos, and voice data, and that information will be shared with other agencies at the local, state, federal and international levels" the EFF explains. "The fact recognition component is set to launch in 2014."

Its lawsuit is a last resort, the EFF argues, after the FBI failed to respond in a timely fashion to multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They were submitted midway through 2012, the EFF says, to discover the extent to which different agencies will be able to access the gathered data, how reliable face-recognition will be, and how advanced plans to merge civilian and criminal databases are.

The FBI's plans for the NGI database are ambitious. The Bureau will collect "iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos, and voice data" the EFF says, "for both criminal and noncriminal purposes."

It's the facial-recognition data which the privacy advocates are most concerned about. "Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images" staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said. Part of the information requests have covered how many records are already in the new database, and indeed how many will be present when it launches next year.

Meanwhile, the relevant sections of the FBI's Privacy Impact Assessments are yet to be updated, meaning details on the new systems are not included. The Bureau is yet to comment on the new lawsuit.