EFF Sues FBI, Wants Access To Records Of The FBI’s Facial Recognition Program

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Companies like Facebook have been scrutinized by government regulators over the use of facial recognition technology. Now the Electronic Frontier Foundation is putting a mirror up to the government to demand the same scrutiny back. The organization is suing the Federal Bureau of Investigation over access to its facial recongition records, based on three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that the EFF originally made a year ago. We’re embedding the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, below.

To be clear, the EFF is not asking for actual facial recognition records — although that may be to come. For now, the complaint is restricted to demanding records relating to the FBI’s plans for its facial recognition program, which is still being put in place and expected to launch in 2014.

The EFF is asking records of agreements and discussions between the FBI and state agencies; records related to the FBI’s assessment of the reliability of face-recognition technology; and records of the FBI’s plans to merge civilian and criminal records in a single repository. The EFF says it also wants to know how many records containing facial-recognition data the FBI may already have. For those who believe that programs like this should be made more public, the EFF’s requests are essential building blocks for those subsequent demands of the records themselves.

As background to the FBI’s bigger plan: The FBI has been putting together a facial recognition plan for at least a couple of years, as part of a larger biometrics database that it plans to share with other agencies across the local, state, federal and international levels. The EFF has been trying to get it to disclose information about how it will work since 2011. Other parts of the Next Generation Identification database, as it is called, include iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos, and voice data.

“NGI will result in a massive expansion of government data collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes,” writes EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images.” The EFF believes that the FBI is working under an out-of-date set of privacy guidelines, last written in 2008 before biometrics capabilities were as advanced as they are today.

The EFF is no stranger to suing the FBI over information access — and no stranger to getting its way, either. It’s also taken the FBI to court over domestic surveillance data; abuse of National Security Letter data collection rules for private citizens’ data (it won this one, with some help from the ACLU); and a suit with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court over disclosures at the Department of Justice. The EFF has also recently revealed data about the FBI’s drone program.