FBI’s limited restrictions on biometrics data sharing raises secrecy and privacy concerns

In the latest threat to individuals’ right to privacy, the FBI will no longer be required to inform you if your photographs, fingerprints, iris scans, and other records are being stored in the government’s largest existing biometrics database – the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. Last year, OpenTheGovernment and our partners submitted comments to the Department of Justice calling for stronger privacy and transparency safeguards for the NGI system, and opposing the FBI’s proposal to weaken existing protections for the database. In spite of widespread protests from civil rights, government accountability, privacy and civil liberties organizations, and growing Congressional concern over law enforcement’s use of biometrics technology, last week the Justice Department exempted the FBI from applying key Privacy Act protections to the NGI database.

The FBI’s newly granted authority removes important rights established under the Privacy Act, which was passed in 1974 in response to concern about illegal surveillance and investigation of individuals by the FBI and other federal agencies. The Privacy Act was intended to prohibit agencies from keeping records on activities protected by the First Amendment, restrict disclosure of personal information, and provide individuals the right to access and amend personal information maintained by the government. Such protections remain critically important, particularly in light of unlawful monitoring and surveillance  of Muslim communities, Movement for Black Lives leaders, and protest organizers by law enforcement.

OTG joined a coalition of organizations last year calling on Congress to hold a hearing on the NGI database and the FBI’s proposed exemptions from the Privacy Act. While that hearing has not yet occurred, the House Oversight & Government Reform (HOGR) Committee held a hearing earlier this year on the use of facial recognition technology. The NGI system is estimated to hold over 50 million facial images, and has drastically expanded the number of photographs available to investigators and law enforcement agencies across the country. The growing prevalence of facial recognition technology has led to new threats to privacy and civil rights, such as the unwarranted monitoring and targeting of lawful protests. Police in Baltimore, for example, used the technology to identify and arrest people with outstanding warrants during high-profile protests in 2015. Additionally, the hearing addressed the ways that facial recognition data is biased and inaccurate, and disproportionately impacts communities of color, leading to serious consequences for innocent people. During the hearing, members of Congress expressed the need for legislation limiting the use this technology and the sharing of biometrics data.

“The public has the right to know whether they are being monitored and if their data is being stored by the FBI,” said Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “Congress needs to act to ensure that the Privacy Act is upheld, and place necessary transparency and accountability safeguards on the FBI’s expansive and potentially harmful use of biometrics data.”


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