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EFF Press Release Archives

Press Releases: November 2017

November 30, 2017

Government Program Is Aimed at Using Body Art to Identify Religions, Nationalities, and Political Beliefs

Washington, D.C. - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit against the Department of Justice, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security today, demanding records about the agencies’ work on the federal Tattoo Recognition Technology program.

This secretive program involves a coalition of government, academia, and private industry working to develop a series of algorithms that would rapidly detect tattoos, identify people via their tattoos, and match people with others who have similar body art—as well as flagging tattoos believed to be connected to religious and ethnic symbols. This type of surveillance raises profound religious, speech, and privacy concerns. Moreover, the limited information that EFF has been able to obtain about the program has already revealed a range of potentially unethical behavior, including conducting research on prisoners without approval, adequate oversight, or safeguards.

EFF filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for more information about the Tattoo Recognition Technology program, which is a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) project sponsored by the FBI, beginning in January of 2016. Although the agencies released some records, they withheld others, and heavily redacted some of the documents they released. As a result, EFF is going to court today against DHS, DOJ, and NIST's parent agency, the Commerce Department, to make sure this important information is released to the public.

“These new automated tattoo recognition tools raise serious constitutional concerns,” said EFF Stanton Fellow Camille Fischer. “Tattoos have served as an expression of the self for thousands of years, and can represent our innermost thoughts, closely held beliefs, and significant moments. If law enforcement is creating a detailed database of tattoos, we have to make sure that everyone’s rights to freedom of expression are protected.”

One big danger of this surveillance is that it can create First Amendment freedom of association concerns when people are matched with others who have similar tattoos—sometimes incorrectly. For example, someone who wears a Star of David tattoo could be confused with a member of a Chicago street gang whose members also wear six-pointed-star tattoos. Recently, an immigrant was fast-tracked for deportation because immigration officials claimed he had a gang tattoo. The immigrant argued that the tattoo signified his place of birth.

“Federal researchers say they want to ‘crack the code’ of tattoos and speech, creating a powerful program that will encourage police to make assumptions about tattoo-wearers,” said EFF Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey. “But the reality is that body art is much more complex than that. The government must disclose more about this program so we can ensure that it doesn’t violate our rights.”

For the full lawsuit:
https://www.eff.org/document/tattoo-complaint

For more on tattoo recognition technology:
https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/06/tattoo-recognition-research-threatens-free-speech-and-privacy
https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/05/5-ways-law-enforcement-will-use-tattoo-recognition-technology

Related Issues:

Contact:

Camille
Fischer
Frank Stanton Fellow

Aaron
Mackey
Staff Attorney

Dave
Maass
Investigative Researcher
November 6, 2017

Agencies’ and Officials’ Social Media Posts Are Vital Communications That Can’t Be Denied to People Whose Views Officials Don’t Like

New York, New York—President Donald Trump's blocking of people on Twitter who criticize him violates their constitutional right to receive government messages transmitted through social media and participate in the forums created by them, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told a court today.

Public agencies and officials, from city mayors and county sheriff offices to U.S. Secretaries of State and members of Congress, routinely use social media to communicate opinions, official positions, services, and important public safety and policy messages. Twitter has become a vital communications tool for government, allowing local and federal officials to transmit information when natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires strike, hold online town halls, and answer citizens’ questions about programs.

President Trump’s frequent use of Twitter to communicate policy decisions, air opinions on local and global events and leaders, and broadcast calls for congressional action has become a hallmark of his administration. In July, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging the president and his communications team violated the First Amendment by blocking seven people from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account because they criticized the president or his policies. The seven individuals include a university professor, a surgeon, a comedy writer, a community organizer, an author, a legal analyst, and a police officer.

In a brief filed today siding with the plaintiffs, EFF maintains that President Trump’s use of his Twitter account is akin to past presidents’ adoption of new communication technologies to engage directly with the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered fireside chats” with Americans over the radio, while presidential debates began being televised in the 1960s. It would be impermissible for a president to block certain individuals from receiving their messages, whether delivered by bullhorn, radio, or television. It should be the same for communications delivered by Twitter.

On the local level, mayors use their Twitter feeds to direct residents to emergency services during storms and hurricanes, while fire chiefs use their feeds to transmit evacuation orders and emergency contact information. Citizens rely heavily on these channels for authoritative and reliable information in times of public safety crisis. It’s unthinkable, and unconstitutional, that certain people would be blocked from these messages because they sent a tweet criticizing the official or office maintaining the Twitter account.

“Governmental use of social media platforms to communicate to and with the public, and allow the public to communicate with each other, is pervasive. It is seen all across the country, at every level of government. It is now the rule of democratic engagement, not the exception,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. “The First Amendment prohibits the exclusion of individuals from these forums based on their viewpoint. President Trump’s blocking of people on Twitter because he doesn’t like their views infringes on their right to receive public messages from government and participate in the democratic process.”

For the brief:
https://www.eff.org/document/knight-first-amendment-institute-v-trump

For information about the lawsuit:
https://knightcolumbia.org/content/knight-institute-v-trump-lawsuit-challenging-president-trumps-blocking-critics-twitter

Contact:

David
Greene
Civil Liberties Director
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