There's a lot going on in this article.
The federal government is embarking on a multiyear, $1 billion dollar overhaul of the FBI's existing fingerprint database to more quickly and accurately identify suspects, partly through applying other biometric markers, such as iris scans and voice recordings.The first half of the article covers organizational aspects of the NGI system: a build-out of the FBI fingerprint database — and the beauraucratic infrastructure allowing the FBI to support local law enforcement nationwide — to include other biometrics. In this case, facial recognition applied to mug shots.
Often law enforcement authorities will "have a photo of a person and for whatever reason they just don't know who it is [but they know] this is clearly the missing link to our case," said Nick Megna, a unit chief at the FBI's criminal justice information services division. The new facial recognition service can help provide that missing link by retrieving a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo.
For now, it's not clear exactly how useful such a system will be compared to the technological and organizational overhead it will require. If an officer has arrested someone they are having trouble identifying and they want to enlist the FBI's help, the FBI AFIS fingerprint system works great. The time when a picture would be most useful is when fingerprints aren't an option, meaning the person isn't under arrest.
In this case, the quality of the 'probe' image (as opposed to the database image) will be extremely important and a significant amount of officer training is involved in using such a system. But if you want to have face as well as fingerprints as an option, you have to start somewhere: collecting the data and building the institutional linkages.
The second half of the article covers privacy from a variety of perspectives:
♦ Sunita Patel - staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights: "Any database of personal identity information is bound to have mistakes. And with the most personal immutable traits like our facial features and fingerprints, the public can't afford a mistake."
I'm not sure I follow. As with every other human endeavor, Law enforcement is not a mistake-free business. Never has been; never will be. The application of a new technology or process should be judged by whether or not it improves the status quo by a greater measure than its costs. While we're on the subject of mistakes, isn't letting known violent offenders go free to victimize others also a mistake?
♦ Jim Harper - director of information policy at the libertarian Cato Institute: "It might be appropriate to have nonconvicted people out of that system."
Good point. One can see why Federal, State and Local law enforcement would want to keep mug shots in the database of people that have not been convicted of criminal acts. All sorts of organized crime comes to mind (drugs, gangs, prostitution) and biometric ID management technology can be extremely useful in learning about these criminal organizations.
It's also easy to see the point of view of someone who has been arrested for something they did not do and has been cleared of any wrongdoing. They proably don't want to be in a database of bad guys after having been wrongly accused in the first place. There are also (for now) some technical reasons why you wouldn't want to junk up the database with the photos of the truly innocent. First the search will take longer and second the quality of the result will go down. The parenthetical "for now" above is because over time Moore's Law and better algorithms will compensate.
♦ The article also links to a very frank Privacy Impact Assessment conducted by the FBI. See Section 2.3: Privacy Impact Analysis.
♦ Nick Megna, an FBI CJIS Unit Chief: "This doesn't change or create any new exchanges of data," he said. "It only provides [law enforcement] with a new service to determine what photos are of interest to them."
"This is not something where we want to collect a bunch of surveillance film" and enter it in the system. "That would be useless to us. It would be useless to our users."
This subject will continue to generate significant and, we hope, healthy debate. Discovering the most advantageous way to incorporate new technology in law enforcement and public safety depends upon it.
Earlier, far less detailed, post on the subject: FBI's Next-Gen Multi-Modal Biometric ID management System