The FBI Wants To Hide Your Face

Category: Privacy

I used to think of the FBI as the good guys. Defenders of the law, and all that sort of stuff. Now it seems like just another politicized government agency, with their (metaphorical) guns aimed at the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Sometimes I even wonder if the KGB has been reincarnated as the FBI. The topic of today's article is one such occasion…

Wanted: YOU (or maybe just your face)

The FBI has access to 411.9 million photos of people’s faces, and uses facial recognition technology to rapidly scan them in search of “persons of interest.” In June, it was revealed that the Bureau has been hiding this fact from the public for years, in flagrant violation of federal law that requires its disclosure.

And that’s not the only law the Bureau has conveniently ignored, according to the General Accounting Office’s report to Congress on the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System (NGIS). (PDF)

Your face may well be among these digitized photos, for they include mug shots, passport and visa application photos, the Defense Department’s biometric database, fingerprints and photos of foreigners applying to become naturalized citizens or permanent residents. The database even includes driver’s license photos drawn from at least 16 States (the FBI won’t reveal exactly how many States are part of this scheme).

FBI and Facial Recognition

Your mugshot might be displayed on an FBI agent's computer screen right now. Or maybe it’s someone who only looks like you enough to confuse facial recognition software. Current facial recognition technologies are only “95 percent” accurate, according to Toby Rush, CEO of EyeVerify, which develops iris-recognition software. In a recent interview with, he added, “As a security mechanism, we need 99.998 percent accuracy.”

Errors in the NGIS could be very, very bad for you if that “someone” robs a bank or bombs a marathon. But the stakes don’t have to be nearly so high to ruin your day. Each year, thousands of Americans wrongfully lose job opportunities because of errors in the FBI’s fingerprint identification system that is used in many background checks. And facial recognition is not nearly as mature or accurate as fingerprint identification.

When the Law Becomes Lawless…

Are cameras tagging and identifying you when you walk into church, stores and other public places? Can authorities predict your behavior by looking at your face? Read my articles on how facial recognition is being used is other alarming ways. See Time To Worry About Facial Recognition? and Your Face Predicts Your Behavior?

The FBI has not even attempted to verify the accuracy of the NGIS, despite another law requiring it to do so, the GAO investigation found. Furthermore, the FBI allows State and local law enforcement agencies to access NGIS data without verifying that those entities are using reliable technologies, violating yet another legal requirement.

Now the FBI has made a proposal to the Justice Department to exempt the NGIS from all provisions of The Privacy Act of 1974, not just the pesky transparency and due diligence parts. The Privacy Act, among other important protections, prohibits the government from creating databases about the political activities of its citizens. But the FBI’s proposal would allow it to do exactly that, and citizens could not take the Bureau to court. The Privacy Act also protects citizens’ right to know what data the government keeps on them and how it is used or shared, and our right to challenge the accuracy of such data and force its correction.

Caught redhanded in violation of multiple parts of the law, the nation’s top law enforcement agency’s response is, “Let’s just forget about the whole law, shall we?” (Perhaps they should grant themselves immunity.) The limitless arrogance of the FBI’s proposal seems designed to stun any opposition into immobility. But that isn’t going to work.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is all over the NGIS and the FBI’s proposal. The EFF joined dozens of other privacy and civil liberties watchdogs (and, oddly, Uber and Lyft, the ride-sharing companies) in successfully pressuring the Department of Justice (DoJ) to extend the period for public comments on the FBI’s proposal. You can find the latest information on the FBI's efforts to build and use biometric databases, and what the EFF is doing to shine light on the situation.

It's now up to the DoJ to hold the FBI accountable. Or not. We shall see. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "The FBI Wants To Hide Your Face"

(See all 33 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

The Political Comments on this tech site have become more and more bizarre.

Posted by:

Bob Rankin
29 Sep 2016

Since this is the season, I don't mind a political reference (or even a preference), but no name calling or invective here, please. I'll edit or remove anything that crosses that line.

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

A couple of things that shouldn't be commented about here are religion and politics. I'm with Henry, political posts should be denied.

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

>>>> The Privacy Act ... prohibits the government from creating databases about the political activities of its citizens. But the FBI’s proposal would allow it to do exactly that, and citizens could not take the Bureau to court.

It appears that you wish you could sue one agency of the USA government (the FBI) in another agency of that government (a court of law).


There is NO SEPARATION between the Executive and the Judicial branches of the USA government.

The president, who nominates the head of the FBI, also nominates the Justices of the Supreme Court. (See Section 2 of the Constitution.)

Those extraordinary powers of the president definitely make the USA an “exemplary democracy”!

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

I'm with Vulcan..........this is Obama's Baby.

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

Also agree strongly with Vulcan and Ken Mitchell.

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016


Tell that to Richard Jewell. He was the Atlanta Olympic Games guard accused by the FBI even though he was totally innocent. In fact he was driven from job to job after the bombing (even after the actual perpetrator was caught)and hounded to death. There are many more such "incidents." So much for being safe just because you're law abiding.

Posted by:

Daniel Presley
29 Sep 2016

Vulcan, you got my vote-that's for sure.

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

Here's the rub that seems to be mising from what I've been reading: ID-ing a person rests upon the foundation of 'matching' various points of a persons face, finger prints, hand-foot prints etc.

After a QUICK perusal of the Web I can find that with fingerprints, for example, standards range from 5 points of match to 18 points of match. And some countries rely more upon the 'experience' of the investigator rather than on a 'fixed' number of points between to separate to 'match'. There are 'Rules of Seven' and "Rules of 12" and "Rules of 18", etc.

The point being that with each increasing 'match' in a point a percentage of the population has to 'drop out' of the sample because you have found a 'false positive'. That means that I'm in Central Nevada and you are in Central Mississippi, and a fingerprint shows up on the butt of a a pack of smoke at a murder scene in Maine.

With a "7 point rule' - meaning that seven points of a print need to match -both YOU and I can not be ruled out as suspects and become 'persons of interest'. With each increasing 'point' match, more people are excluded. So by 10 points YOU are excluded and at 12 points *I* am excluded. But until then, we are both, pretty much in the eyes of the law, 'suspects'.

Each country sets its own 'rules' for how many points of match are required to make a POSITIVE IDENTIFICATION OF A SPECIFIC INDIVIDUAL. Some, as I have mentioned would "Like to see" 'at least 5' - but that can be swayed by the expert testimony of a specialist.

I think everyone can see where this goes when we start talking about 'matching' faces - just EXACTLY how many matching 'Points' are needed to make YOU the suspect - or which will rule YOU out and ME in? -- no one knows.

This is not watching NCIA or CSI or some Si-Fi thriller - this difference often 'balances' the life of a person -- 5 points match - experts will say that's Proof Positive- beyond a doubt. That person goes to prison for 'life', 'life without parole' or is murdered by the state for a crime which the person did not commit.

Fingerprints were only the FIRST method to 'scientifically' discover 'hidden' evidence - and to then allow that evidence into court.

What IS the standard for the US when they are at war with most of the world, ---- and the important question - would that change were we at peace with most of the world (God Forbid!).

There is a well funded political side to the number of points needed to convict a person based upon fingerprints - and there is, or will be, a standard which will help convict a person of a crime -- unless they prove they were not there. (Innocent until proven guilty?, Yeah, right).

So as you read the article, and the comments, remember that the more points you need for an ID the farther up the 'bell' you move towards fewer 'false positives' (think about your anti-virus program, it says you ABSOLUTELY have a virus, ABSOLUTELY WITHOUT QUESTION -- but then you run three more programs that say - "Heck! You look clean to us!!" Which do you believe. The 1/4 that says you are infected so you put the computer to death - or the 3/4 that says, you are NOT infected, it was probably a 'false positive', so forget about it, you can keep your computer and use it safely.

So let's stay on topic - and here the topic is how accurate ARE the programs, and how accurate CAN they become - and WHAT IS YOUR COUNTRIES STANDARD FOR PRESUMPTION OF GUILT?

Want numbers? I'd give you cites, only I started out just jotting numbers down, so there really aren't any I can give you, but with a bit of work you can find them - with a 5 point match, you have a 27% false-positive match. That means that 25% of people who have fingerprints that match a crime scene were NOT there. Move the 5 point match to 7 points and only about 14% of the people get false-positives - and the outliers - places which require 18 point matches only have 3% false positives.

So at 5 points 25% of the people are likely guilty, and at 18 points only 3% of the population are likely guilty (PLEASE READ: Likely = MIGHT BE, and DO NOT READ likely ='IS GUILTY').

So the CORE problem is how many points do YOU want to be required before a person comes under police harassment. (And here I'm being overly brutal on the police, I live in a county with a TINY population where 'bad' cops don't last long - so we have different standards in a county of 2, 000 people than a city with 200,000 people).

It's not shocking to find out that the Government has this technology and has not told us about it, and who may well have had some people in authority LIE bout it's existence or capability -- WHAT WILL BECOME SHOCKING IS HOW MANY 'POINTS' OF MATCH WILL ***YOU*** REQUIRE FOR A MACHINE TO IDENTIFY **YOU**? (Sorry for the all caps rule Bob, it had to be shouted to catch attention).

If 5 points on a fingerprint match mean a person can be murdered for a crime they did not commit, how many points on your face will our society and culture require to murder a person who has a face very much like yours?

The time to make up YOUR mind is before they ask you, BEFORE they propose some number out of the sky. In the mid 1960's the US Spy Satellite system was said to be able to read the date on a dime from a U-2. We believed it. "We" meaning most of the rural America I grew up in. And today. 50 years later we learn that we can't even find an entire airliner that goes missing over the Indian Ocean -- by satellites from MANY countries, 'spy' or 'intelligence' aircraft from MANY countries, 'spy' or 'intelligence' ships, boats and submarines from many countries -- all the various types of radar and radio communication instruments in use by so VERY many counties -- we not only cannot trace the route the plane took, but we could not find the 'black boxes' which they carried.

That alone should tell you that for many reasons we, as the people of this planet and the citizens of many nations are still being lied to about our (non)existent capabilities. Though Moors Law says that we will reach what the lies of today tell us, FAR faster than we would like - so NOW is the time to make up your own minds about what is a 'reasonable' number of 'point-matches' that will exclude you from being a suspected Enemy of the State? NOW is the time to think about this problem in the cold light of reason, before it becomes an inflamed (in medicine when something is 'inflamed' it is generally not working very well, and keeps other surrounding parts of the body from working well)- NOW is the time to start thinking about how many 'points in common' you want to have judging YOU separate from others.

The Science Fiction of today is the reality of tomorrow - what will YOU allow to become that reality? Remember: you live in a democracy, and you DO have a say if you start making informed decisions today, and communicating those decisions to others -- your 'Masters' -- those who 'own' you and make those laws that apply to their 'ownership' of you - now and in the future.

A VERY long post and I have thought about edits, but would like everyone who reads this to ponder what may be some of THE most powerful laws yet to be placed on the books. When a TV Camera and a Microphone 'Boom' look like anti-personnel weapons and those who carry them must be shot is NOT the time to debate what rules will be used against others in the future.

Remember to you **I** am just 'another' person who may or may not be a threat to you. What is YOUR criteria that will result in a kill-no-kill order?

Posted by:

29 Sep 2016

Some good comments.

However, with an extensive military history, I feel that I can say with quite a bit of authority, that things weren't quite so bad until the "patriot act" was passed. THAT is what is giving the FBI, among others, so much leeway to do just about anything they want to do, to anybody they want to do it to.

Sad, but true.

Posted by:

Will j
29 Sep 2016

As a former fingerprint examiner, in my Division a match was 13 points. On the very rare occasion when separate individuals had equal points at 13 or above, we sent in both suspects as 'possibles'.

Posted by:

J Russell
30 Sep 2016

Bob, Everyone, how is it, you did not know that the F.B.I. had those photographs? Seriously, if you live in this country, how could you not already know this?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The existence of this FBI database was not revealed until recently. Prior to that, you might have surmised as much, but now we know for sure.

Posted by:

30 Sep 2016

Well I would have to say that anyone who hasn't seen Director Comy of the FBI has missed a great deal of the level of corruption that is bringing this about in double time. I have lived in Virginia Beach and the cameras are everywhere. It is just another testing ground for all the invasive things that bureaucrats can get away with. Your article is not more rumor mongering and I would have to agree that resorting to name calling is ignorance in action. When the electronics overlords subject to more fear and danger some will sing a different tune.

Posted by:

30 Sep 2016

Land of the Free is no longer. Too much has been given up in the name of security. Again we see numerous posts along the lines of "if you don't do anything wrong you have nothing to fear". However, what they forget is that they are looking at this through today's rules and laws. What if next year being left-handed is illegal, or red-headed? Or if saying homosexuality is wrong - wait - that's already here. My point is the definition of what is "wrong" or "illegal" changes. If the law allows such indepth and intrusive information on all citizens, it is much easier to pick out the "guilty" from the general population.

Posted by:

30 Sep 2016

Vulcan nailed it! "We have met the enemy and he is us." Said by Pogo many years ago.........

Posted by:

Doc Eibenschotte
30 Sep 2016

FRED- NOT posting political comments is one reason we have all the problems we have- PEOPLE NEED TO BE INFORMED!!! Amerikans are blissfully ignorant victims of normalcy bias. As long as they have their sports and chicken wings, everything else is tolerable- UNTIL IT ISN'T!

Posted by:

Kenneth Maltby
30 Sep 2016

When I went from Canada to Mexico a couple of years ago there was a flight transfer in Chicago. Without being informed of this beforehand we were all made to pass through US immigration and have our fingerprint and photos taken. Another person (non US citizen) in the line up told me this had happened to her before, and she didn't like it. Neither did I - but we both submitted to it before our onward journey, because there was no other choice given. I no longer visit the US but now I have to work out how to avoid stop-overs there too

Posted by:

Eric Tanner
30 Sep 2016

"I have nothing to hide" is an incorrect assumption to make where the government is concerned. Benjamin Franklin once said: "Any society that will give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

Posted by:

01 Oct 2016

Oh, Golly! What a fuss.

To be a volunteer at the local VA Medical Center, I have my photo and fingerprints taken yearly. I also went through state and federal background searches. To work at a top secret program years ago I was fingerprinted,photographed and subjected to a remarkably rigid FBI investigation.

Amazingly, I survived it back then and I survive it now. I never worried about it. I have never been bothered by any police or federal agency, nor do I fret about the possibility.

I have bad knees and am old and bald. That bothers me a heck of a lot more than who can recognize me at the ball games or on the street.

Google already does the same thing to zillions of photo collections. Where's the weeping about that? Oops! time for my hot Ovaltine and bed.

Nighty night!

Posted by:

06 Oct 2016

The necessity of computer screening is here to stay- the Terrorists saw to that. But they shouldn't be able to do this in secret. Apparently we have rules and laws that are being ignored by the FBI (and others). We need Congress to press for enforcement of all these "protections". It doesn't matter how much it costs, or how much manpower it takes- if you can't follow all the rules- you can't use the tool.

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