Given the FBI’s record of fallibility – and without genuine safeguards for citizens – this $1bn biometrics project is alarming
The FBI recently announced that its Next Generation Identification System (NGIS) has “reached its initial operating capacity”. This vast new biometrics project, for which Lockheed Martin won a $1bn contract in 2008, encompasses not only fingerprints but also, possibly, such biometrics as iris scans, face recognition, bodily scars, marks and tattoos.
Such a system raises a number of concerns from a civil liberties perspective. Many types of biometrics are of particular concern because they allow individuals to be tracked secretly and at a distance. For instance, facial recognition may allow a person to be tracked by various CCTV cameras across a city. Worse, in the future, this may be automated and done by computers.
The FBI is rushing ahead with this system in a larger context that is very troubling. Since 9/11, we’ve repeatedly seen the government throw together new identity and tracking systems without building in the necessary protections to make sure innocent people aren’t caught up in them. A good example is aviation watchlists. Countless travelers have found themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare – improperly listed as suspected terrorists, hassled, arrested or worse, and with no way to clear their names in the eyes of the government’s secretive security bureaucracies. The problem is not just errors and mistaken identification, or the lack of due process or rigorous procedures for keeping the lists accurate, but also the possibility that government bureaucrats have used a “when in doubt, thrown a name on the list” approach.