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Civil Libertarians Concerned About Undisclosed FBI Research into Tattoo Recognition Technology

by Derek Gilna

Yet another example of how the judicial and legislative branches are falling behind the curve in protecting American citizens from undisclosed forms of surveillance and classification was revealed in a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) published in April 2018. In EFF’s recent Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) lawsuit, the organization found that the FBI is not only racing to develop facial recognition technology, but also is expanding its efforts into the area of “Tattoo Recognition,” all without informing the public or government agencies that allegedly have oversight over such activities.

According to EFF, that project was initiated in 2015 when the National Institute for Standards & Technology (“NIST”), in collaboration with the FBI, started “promoting experiments using tattoo images gathered involuntarily from prison inmates and arrestees.”

After collecting the data from that effort, the law enforcement community, without any notice to the public, contacted 19 outside tech organizations seeking a technology that could be used to mine the data. They also sought an image recognition app, suitable for use on mobile devices, in an attempt to classify “people of interest.”

As with other government-funded research projects operating in gray areas, oversight was an afterthought. However, it soon became clear to EFF that the “NIST was targeting people who shared common beliefs, with a heavy emphasis on religious imagery.” It also became evident that NIST had apparently bypassed various requirements designed to protect prisoners from being used as subjects of government research without their knowledge or consent.

NIST then slowed its previous timely responses to EFF FOIA requests, until finally forced to disclose its work after the FOIA lawsuit was filed. NIST then claimed that the purpose of its research was “not about the many complex law enforcement policies or approaches that may be related to images of tattoos,” but merely a scientific exercise to determine whether tattoo recognition algorithms were achievable.

Although the FBI and other police agencies have in the past used a program called the TAG-IMAGE to identify people by their tattoos, this new program had the potential to be much more problematic. One of the clues was its stated goal to establish gang affiliations, “terrorist relevance, location, [and] symbols description/meaning,” but also included religious images, raising profiling concerns.

Much of the material produced by the FBI was blacked out, including slides and information that would have shown what conclusion was drawn from the symbols studied. Not redacted was one of the agency’s stated goals, “The Technology We Need: [a] web accessible user populated database with instant i2i matching” (i2i stands for ‘image to image’).

Although in many instances facial recognition technology can be used to identify criminal suspects or victims, it differs from tattoo recognition in the classification aspect.

Civil libertarians fear this technology will be used to focus on not only on criminals but also on lawful immigrants or practitioners of a particular religious faith.  

There also are fears that like many technological applications used by law enforcement, the system can be prone to misinterpretation, leading to unlawful detentions and arrests, especially when many experts say the technology thus far has only been shown to be accurate 15 percent of the time. 


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