PhotoTechnology watchdog group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a Freedom of Information request asking the U.S. Justice Department for records relating to the Federal Bureau of Information (FBI)’s facial recognition system.

The FBI plans to roll out a large-scale version of the system, which has been in development over the past several years, in 2014. Ultimately, the Next Generation Identification, or NGI, system is intended to replace the current fingerprint system used to compile information on criminals and terrorists, as well as data gathered for background checks during employment applications.

Organization and use questioned

While the technology is purportedly intended primarily for surveillance and criminal investigations, the EFF suggests that a more nefarious motive could be in play.

According to the EFF’s complaint, a presentation by the FBI “included a graphic image that implied the [FBI] wanted to use facial recognition to be able to track people from one political rally to another.”

The EFF also voiced concerns about the technology’s impact on privacy, given that “[t]he FBI appears poised to link or combine the civil and criminal records in NGI under a 'Master Name' or unique identifier,” but “has not explained … how [the] system design would ensure that civil submissions are not ‘tainted’ by criminal submissions.”

System still has kinks

By many accounts, facial recognition software has a long way to go before it becomes a tried-and-true police tool.

After the April 15 marathon bombings in Boston, concern was raised that the technology was unable to identify the two later-named suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, even though, as a Washington Post article reported, “both Tsarnaevs’ images exist in official databases.”

“Dzhokhar had a Massachusetts driver’s license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and Tamerlan had been the subject of some FBI investigation,” the article said.

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