Right now, government scientists are working with the FBI to develop tattoo recognition technology that police can use to learn as much as possible about people through their tattoos.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, has been filing public records requests to find out how law enforcement agencies are using mobile biometric technology (which includes facial recognition, digital fingerprinting, and iris scanning) to identify people based on their physical and behavioral characteristics.
As part of their investigation, EFF uncovered some disturbing information: they found that the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), one of the oldest federal scientific institutions, began an initiative in 2014 to promote and refine automated tattoo recognition technology for the FBI.
Why is this concerning?
Tattoos, of course, are a biometric characteristic, but they’re also unique because they’re elective (people generally choose to get tattoos) and expressive (they say things about our personal lives). Importantly, tattoos are also speech, and any attempt to identify, profile, sort, or link people based on their ink raises significant First Amendment questions.
The FBI’s plans for automated tattoo recognition go beyond developing algorithms that can identify people by their tattoos. The experiments facilitated by NIST also focused on improving technology that can map connections between people with similarly themed tattoos or make inferences about people from their tattoos (e.g. political ideology, religious beliefs). On top of the free speech concerns, the project should raise red flags for religious liberty advocates, since many of the experiments involved sorting people and their tattoos based on Christian iconography.
In several whitepapers on tattoo recognition, NIST researchers said…
Tattoos provide valuable information on an individual’s affiliations or beliefs and can support identity verification of an individual.
The technology will allow police departments to use algorithms to scrape tattoos from surveillance video, and police in the field will be able to use mobile apps to analyze tattoos during stops.
Depending on the tattoo, such technology could be used to instantly reveal personal information, such as your religious beliefs or political affiliations, EFF explains:
One slide from a workshop went even further. In answering the question of “Why Tattoos?” researchers said that tattoos “suggest affiliation to gangs, sub-cultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology” and “contain intelligence, messages, meaning and motivation.”
EFF expressed its concerns to NIST officials, and the agency responded by attempting to scrub references to religion and politics from its public documentation.
Some law enforcement agencies are already deploying the technology:
Purdue University, with support from the Department of Homeland Security, has developed a graffiti and tattoo matching app—GARI—that is now in use by law enforcement agencies across the state of Indiana. Meanwhile, companies like MorphoTrak and DataWorks are now offering tattoo recognition as part of biometric software packages that also include fingerprint scanning, iris scanning, DNA analysis and facial recognition. We know that sheriff’s departments in California have contracts with these companies.
EFF has launched a petition campaign to try to stop NIST from continuing its development of this technology, referring to the research as “irresponsible” and “a serious threat to our privacy and First Amendment rights.” They point out that the researchers “experimented with tattoos that contained religious imagery and personal information, without thinking through the ethical and constitutional issues at stake.”
For more detailed information on EFF’s findings, please read 5 Ways Law Enforcement Will Use Tattoo Recognition Technology
To sign the petition, click here: Stop the Government’s Tattoo Recognition Experiments
Lily Dane is a staff writer for The Daily Sheeple. Her goal is to help people to “Wake the Flock Up!”