The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, reportedly is setting out to create the world’s largest database of records describing the physical characteristics of individual people. This database of biometric information—containing digital images of faces, fingerprints, palm patterns and iris patterns—will be used to identify criminals and terrorists and to solve crimes.
Washington Post reported that the FBI expects the project will cost $1 billion and may take about ten years to build (next month the agency will award a decade-long contract to expand its biometric storehouse). Privacy advocates no doubt are hoping that the FBI is more careful with the data it collects than the Internal Revenue Service.
According to the Washington Post, biometric data in government collections has been growing quite a lot in the past few years. The Defense Department, for example, maintains a collection of 1.5 million records (containing fingerprint, iris and face images) pertaining to Afghan and Iraqi detainees, along with Iraqi citizens and other foreigners who need access to U.S. military bases. DNA samples are stored separately.
The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, is using iris scans to help travelers get to their destinations faster; those who agree to have their eyes scanned are upgraded to faster security lines. The DHS also maintains millions of fingerprint records.
The FBI intends to combine collections like those maintained by the Defense Department and Homeland Security into a central database with its own data (including 55 million fingerprints), culling duplicate records in the process.
Critics of biometrics claim the technology is not yet reliable enough to accurately identify criminals, and may do more harm than good by putting privacy of law-abiding citizens in jeopardy.
“You're giving the federal government access to an extraordinary amount of information linked to biometric identifiers that is becoming increasingly inaccurate,” the Washington Post report quoted Marc Rotenberg, executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as saying.
Advocates of using biometric data for crime prevention say it is a valuable tool enabling efficient storage of information that multiple agencies can use to identify criminals and ensure fairness in court proceedings.
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Mae Kowalke is an associate editor for TMCnet, covering VoIP, CRM, call center and wireless technologies. To read more of Mae’s articles, please visit her columnist page. She also blogs for TMCnet here.