Next Generation Identification - not a DNA database, but just as problematic

Posted by Emily Stehr July 19, 2011
Biopolitical Times
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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create a “bigger, faster, and better” database of individuals’ biometric data called Next Generation Identification (NGI). The FBI and DHS currently maintain separate databases with information from people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system, but NGI will merge these preexisting, independent records and supplement them with entries from attorney bar applicants, government employees, and people who work with the elderly or children.

Not only will there be more records in NGI, but the different kinds of data collected by different agents will appear all together name, gender, race, address, social security number, fingerprints, iris scans, photos, as well as border entries and exits. And NGI is not only designed to allow the collection and storage of these presently used identification metrics, it is also built to accommodate identifiers that are likely to become more common in the future – which easily could include individuals’ genome sequences.

Though the FBI is presently disavowing any intent to link NGI with its CODIS database or in any way incorporate individuals’ DNA information, NGI does conjure up some of the reliability and privacy issues associated with DNA databases. For example, NGI has very advanced photo storage and facial recognition capabilities that enable an “increased ability to locate potentially related photos (and other records associated with the photos) that might not otherwise be discovered.”

Just as the likelihood for chromosome loci matches increases as the number of samples in a DNA database increases, so too might the number of facial feature matches increase as the number of photos in the NGI database increase. Since even civil records will be searched in “bulk checks for criminal investigative purposes,” the heightened chance of erroneous matches could have disastrous consequences.

In addition to the serious potential problems stemming from the sheer size of the database, there are significant issues with the method of biometric data collection itself. According to documents discovered during the Center for Constitutional Rights’ FOIA lawsuit, the FBI has used information gleaned from the DHS’s Secure Communities program to help build NGI. This deportation program has been criticized for purporting to prioritize contact with dangerous criminals but actually focusing on easy targets such as minor traffic offenders.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has identified the most fundamental flaws practical and philosophical with our government’s new endeavor. From a practical standpoint, standardized data systems will wreak havoc in the event records are ever compromised. Iris scans can’t be changed as easily as passwords or PIN numbers and as we know, even high-tech corporations such as Sony and Google have recently had major security breaches. From a philosophical point of view, once biometric collection is standardized, the EFF notes,

it becomes much easier to locate and track someone across all aspects of their life....A society in which everyone’s actions are tracked is not, in principle, free.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: