FBI Launches Software to ID Faces in Photos

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is testing software that is able to take a scanned-in photo and automatically match people in the photo with mug shots in the FBI's vast database. The system should be able work with photos of varying quality. Not only nicely centered and lit police-taken photos, but also security camera footage and pictures posted on the Internet are up for auto-IDing, the New Scientist reported (opens in new tab). Testing started in February and the FBI plans to have a nationwide system running by 2014.

Adding facial recognition to the FBI's arsenal of tools should make crime-solving easier and faster. But groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union worry that citizens with no criminal record could end up in the database. 

Right now, the pilot test of facial recognition only matches photos to mug shots of known criminals, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Jerome Pender told the Senate in July. However, the Next Generation Identification program's privacy statement doesn't clearly say whether the matching will expand once the program is nationwide, Jennifer Lynch, an Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer, told the New Scientist.  The Foundation and other groups worry that people without a criminal record may end up in the Next Generation Identification database if they're caught on camera standing near a person of interest.

The facial recognition software is part of a $1 billion update of the FBI fingerprint system, which has been in place since 1999. The Next Generation Identification program is designed to match fingerprints more accurately while incorporating new ID technologies, such as automatic facial recognition, iris scans and palm print identification, according to a statement from the FBI.

The state of Michigan started testing next-generation facial recognition software in February. As of July, Hawaii and Maryland had signed formal agreements with the FBI for their own tests, while South Carolina, Ohio and New Mexico were getting their agreements reviewed, according to the FBI. Overall, the agency considers the Next Generation Identification system 60 percent deployed.

Sources: New Scientist (opens in new tab)FBI statement

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