San Francisco—The FBI, which has created a massive database of biometric information on millions of Americans never involved in a crime, mustn’t be allowed to shield this trove of personal information from Privacy Act rules that let people learn what data the government has on them and restrict how it can be used.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed comments today with the FBI, on behalf of itself and six civil liberties groups, objecting to the agency’s request to exempt the Next Generation Identification (NGI) database from key provisions of federal privacy regulations that protect personal data from misuse and abuse. The FBI has amassed this database with little congressional and public oversight, failed for years to provide basic information about NGI as required by law, and dragged its feet to disclose—again, as required by law—a detailed description of the records and its policies for maintaining them. Now it wants to be exempt from even the most basic notice and data correction requirements.
NGI includes prints and face recognition data from millions of everyday people who’ve committed no crime but have had their biometric data collected when they needed a background check for a job, applied for welfare benefits, registered for immigration, or obtained state licenses to be a teacher, realtor, or dentist. For example, NGI holds millions of photographs searchable through facial recognition and accessible by 20,000 foreign, federal, state, and municipal-level law enforcement agencies.
The public’s understanding of the FBI’s collection of biometric information is only now coming to light because the agency has been less than forthcoming about its data gathering. In June, the Government Accountability Office published an exhaustive report revealing that the FBI has access to hundreds of millions more photos of Americans than we ever thought and has been hiding that from the public in violation of federal and agency laws for years. Previously, many believed that NGI just contained criminal case records such as fingerprints and mug shots collected during arrests.
“The FBI has sidestepped the Privacy Act as it has expanded NGI, essentially saying ‘just trust us’ with highly personal and private data,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “But the FBI hasn’t proved itself to be worthy of the public’s trust. Exempting NGI from the Privacy Act will eliminate our rights to access our own records and take action against the government when it make mistakes with that data. The Privacy Act is only the barest of protection for Americans, but the FBI wants to escape from even that basic responsibility.”
The FBI refuses to recognize accuracy is an issue with face recognition or to publish any data on NGI’s accuracy rates. However, research has shown that face recognition misidentifies African Americans, ethnic minorities, women, and young people at higher rates than whites and men. This means that potential errors within NGI will likely impact people of color more frequently, especially because FBI databases include a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, thanks to well-documented racial bias among law enforcement.
This is why it’s particularly important that people be able to use the Privacy Act to learn about NGI—it ensures that people can access records the FBI has on them and allows them to take the FBI to court, if needed, to correct any inaccurate information.
“Over 2,000 Americans have signed an EFF petition objecting to the FBI’s exemption proposal, including the vague, incomplete explanation of how the FBI is maintaining our private records,” said Lynch. “Our message to the FBI is that citizens deserve the right to know what information it has on them, and the bureau must be obligated to correct inaccurate data. Its attempt to skirt these rules must be rejected.”
EFF was joined in its comments by American Civil Liberties Union, Advocacy for Principled Action in Government, Council on Arab-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Fight for the Future, National Immigration Law Center, and National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
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