The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a $1 billion budget for its latest venture: using facial recognition technology to fight crime. Dubbed the Next Generation Identification (NGI) project, it has already been approved in some states (the pilot programme started in February), and is expected to go nationwide by 2014, according to NewScientist.

NGI improvements and new capabilities are slated to be introduced in a phased rollout across many years. The system will offer “state-of-the-art biometric identification services” and provide a “flexible framework of core capabilities that will serve as a platform for multimodal functionality.” The company behind it all is Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions, which the bureau says won a multi-million dollar contract that consists of a base year and the potential for up to nine more years.

Here’s an excerpt from the project description worth emphasizing:

The NGI Program Office mission is to reduce terrorist and criminal activities by improving and expanding biometric identification and criminal history information services through research, evaluation, and implementation of advanced technology within the IAFIS environment.

Its goals are as follows:

  • Public Safety and National Security
  • Biometric Leadership
  • Efficiency Improvements
  • Privacy and Data Protection
  • Smooth Transition

Put more simply, the FBI wants to give law enforcement officials somewhere to put all those mugshots they collect so they can pick you out from a crowd. More specifically, agents will be able to compare images obtained from public cameras to the FBI’s database of criminals, or use an image of a suspect and compare it to the FBI’s repository of public images to look for leads. More broadly, the project is an expansion of the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) services.

Details on how this will work exactly are unknown. The algorithm driving the technology will be a huge issue in the coming years: the agency will want to keep it under wraps, while the public, or at least privacy advocates, will want it exposed.

Speaking of privacy, here’s what the project page has to say on that:

Privacy considerations have been built into NGI. NGI developed a privacy threshold analysis in June 2006. A Privacy Impact Assessment for the Interstate Photo System has been completed to assess NGI compliance with the Privacy Act. The System of Records Notice is being updated to reflect NGI capabilities. NGI also has continued involvement with the CJIS Advisory Policy Board and the Compact Council.

Unsurprisingly, the FBI says this is legal. I’m sure it is, and I’m sure the whole point is to allow officials to find and apprehend criminals more accurately and more quickly. The big worry, however, is how this will affect the public at large given that facial recognition technology is basically one massive trial and error test. What happens to all the images of people who are caught on camera but found to be innocent?

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