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FBI to roll out facial-recognition database search

The FBI is reportedly moving beyond fingerprints and rolling out facial-recognition technology as part of its $1 billion (£624 million) Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometrics database.

According to a report from New Scientist, a beta that kicked off in February is now becoming a reality.

In a July testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Jerome Pender, a deputy assistant director within the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division, said NGI would allow officials to search the 12.8 million mugshots currently available in the national repository of photos.

"Query photos and photos obtained from social networking sites, surveillance cameras, and similar sources are not used to populate the national repository," Pender said.

According to New Scientist, however, officials could use images captured from security cameras and such and cross-check them with photos in the NGI database during an investigation.

To access the system, law enforcement agencies would submit requests for searches. "Query requests are processed 'lights out' [without human intervention], and the results are returned to the submitting agency as an investigative lead in the form of a ranked candidate list," Pender said.

Back in July, NGI was 60 per cent deployed, Pender said. It is expected to be available across the country by 2014.

Michigan completed a test of the facial-recognition technology earlier this year, while Hawaii, Maryland, South Carolina, Ohio, and New Mexico were in the process of signing up for the beta back in July. Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Missouri officials have also expressed an interest, according to Pender.

The system, he said, has seven tiers:

  • Increment 0: Advanced technology workstations (completed March 2010)
  • Increment 1: More accurate fingerprint searches (completed Feb. 2011)
  • Increment 2: Mobile fingerprint identifications on a national level (completed Aug. 2011)
  • Increment 3: Palm searching and latent print searching (scheduled: Sprint 2013)
  • Increment 4: National repository for facial and scars, marks, and tattoo (SMT) searches (Summer 2014)
  • Increment 5: Iris recognition (late Summer/Fall 2013)
  • Increment 6: Tech refreshment of NGI (2014)

Unsurprisingly, NGI has prompted concern from privacy officials. Jennifer Lynch, a staff lawyer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was at the July hearing and urged Congress to limit the collection of biometric data.

The FBI does not have a great track record when it comes to rolling out technology-based systems in a timely manner. In July, it was reported that the FBI's computerised Sentinel case management system was finally up and running - more than 30 months late and $26 million (£16 million) over budget.