Civil rights and privacy groups are alarmed by a plan by the Justice Department to exempt from the Privacy Act the FBI’s Next Generation Identification Database, a collection of biometric data that already includes tens of millions of Americans.
The Rutherford Institute said the exemption from the Privacy Act of 1974– which grants citizens access to personal information the government is holding – sets the stage for “near-limitless power and control that would be granted the DOJ over information collected on law-abiding individuals.”
And the Electronic Privacy Information Center warned that under the announced plan, the FBI even could create “databases about the political activities of … citizens.”
At issue is the NGID system, which Rutherford described as “a massive biometric database that contains more than 100 million fingerprints and 45 million facial photos gathered from a variety of sources ranging from criminal suspects and convicts to daycare workers and visa applicants.”
It would include millions “who have never committed or even been accused of a crime.”
The system, in addition to fingerprints and mug shots, also includes iris scans, DNA profiles, voice identification profiles and palm prints.
The system has been in development for years, butthe DOJ has “quietly” proposed to “exempt the entire NGID” from the public access requirements.
Rutherford explained what that would mean.
“The exemptions would prevent Americans from knowing whether they are in the biometric database, hinder their efforts to ensure that any information stored on them is accurate, and could inhibit their ability to sue for violations of their privacy rights,” the organization’s report said.
The organizations and others have submitted comments to the Department of Justice, which finally is doing the formal public notification process.
John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said exempting the NGID from the Privacy Act “severely undermines the act and could leave citizens without any possible means of recourse should their privacy rights be violated.”
“Going far beyond the scope of those with criminal backgrounds, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database includes criminals and non-criminals alike – in other words, innocent American citizens,” he said. “With technology moving so fast and assaults on our freedoms, privacy and otherwise, occurring with increasing frequency, there is little hope of turning back this technological, corporate and governmental juggernaut, let alone avoiding inclusion in the government’s massive identification database. Even so, the DOJ should be working to ensure that every safeguard is in place to protect citizen privacy rather than attempting to undermine longstanding privacy protections in a bid to amass more power for itself and its fellow government agencies.”
EPIC said it is protesting the plan as part of a coalition of “civil rights, privacy and transparency groups.”
In a letter to Erika Lee at the DOJ’s office of privacy and civil liberties, EPIC and its partners note an investigation already has revealed that thousands of people undergoing background checks lose work each year because their records, held by the government, “are inaccurate or out of date.”
And while federal law requires a report on its impact on privacy, the FBI has refused to provide one, even as state law enforcement agencies began to run facial recognition searches through the database five years ago.
“The Privacy Act was enacted to ensure that individuals had an enforceable right to know the records that the government keeps about their activities. While there may be legitimate reasons for exemption some law enforcement activities from some of the act’s provisions, exemptions must not render the act meaningless,” the coalition including EPIC said.
“This is an extraordinarily broad proposal, and the system it affects is extraordinarily sensitive – particularly for the communities it may affect the most.”
The long list of groups joining included the ACLU, American Library Association, Amnesty International , Center for Digital Democracy, Constitutional Alliance, The Constitution Project, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Founfation, EPIC, Lyft and La Raza.
Rutherford explained in its own letter to Lee that the original act was created in 1974 to balance the government’s need to maintain information with the rights of individuals to be protected against “unwarranted invasions of their privacy.”
But the development of technologies such as facial-recognition software present new troubles, it said.
“It is unknown how often the facial recognition system produces false matches, or whether information has been improperly catalogued. As such, records held by the agency may contain errors whose correction would be necessary to promote the interests of justice.”