The FBI’s Next Generation Identification: Bigger and Faster but Much Worse for Privacy
by Jennifer Lynch
his week, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and several other organizations released documents from a FOIA lawsuit that expose the concerted efforts of the FBI and DHS to build a massive database of personal and biometric information. This database, called “Next Generation Identification” (NGI), has been in the works for several years now. However, the documents CCR posted show for the first time how FBI has taken advantage of the DHS Secure Communities program and both DHS and the State Department’s civil biometric data collection programs to build out this $1 billion database.
Unlike some government initiatives, NGI has not been a secret program. The FBI brags about it on its website (describing NGI as “bigger, faster, and better”), and both DHS and FBI have, over the past 10+ years, slowly and carefully laid the groundwork for extensive data sharing and database interoperability through publicly-available privacy impact assessments and other records. However, the fact that NGI is not secret does not make it OK. Currently, the FBI and DHS have separate databases (called IAFIS and IDENT, respectively) that each have the capacity to store an extensive amount of information—including names, addresses, social security numbers, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, fingerprints, booking photos, unique identifying numbers, gender, race, and date of birth. Within the last few years, DHS and FBI have made their data easily searchable between the agencies. However, both databases remained independent, and were only “unimodal,” meaning they only had one biometric means of identifying someone—usually a fingerprint.
In contrast, as CCR’s FOIA documents reveal, FBI’s NGI database will be populated with data from both FBI and DHS records. Further, NGI will be “multimodal.” This means NGI is designed to allow the collection and storage of the now-standard 10-print fingerprint scan in addition to iris scans, palm prints, and voice data. It is also designed to expand to include other biometric identifiers in the future. NGI will also allow much greater storage of photos, including crime scene security camera photos, and, with its facial recognition and sophisticated search capabilities, it will have the “increased ability to locate potentially related photos (and other records associated with the photos) that might not otherwise be discovered as quickly or efficiently, or might never be discovered at all.”