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.”
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