FBI Expands Spying Powers with New DNA Database

Published October 9, 2014

Instead of broadcasting an omnipresent face via telescreen, a new government program may be bringing “Big Brother” to street corners and traffic intersections near you.

In September, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a statement heralding the expansion of the Next Generation Identification System (NGIS) data network, including two new services, Rap Black and the Interstate Photo System (IPS). 

A third new service, called Rapid DNA, is also planned to be integrated into NGIS in the future. Rapid DNA is a portable genetic testing program which will be plugged “into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index (CODIS) and Next Generation Identification (NGI) systems from the booking environment.”

Using Rapid DNA, law enforcement agents will be able to match genetic material collected with other identifying information from central databases, to quickly identify individuals encountered by law enforcement.

The press release stated Rap Black is intended to allow police to run background and criminal history checks on individuals holding positions of trust, such as public school teachers. IPS is a facial-recognition software tool able to categorize and search through photographs of potential criminal suspects.

What may sound like exciting advances in technology, however, may actually be new ways to violate citizens’ privacy. The volume of “biometric information”—quantified identification markers such as genetic signatures, fingerprints, eye retina and iris patterns, vocal patterns, or hand measurements—collected by law enforcement agents is immense. 

Big Brother Shares, Cares

“Interagency information-sharing can be helpful for crime-solving. However, there are many questions about such data sharing which should be answered, so the public can be sure the data sharing is legal and useful,” Melissa Ngo, a nationally recognized privacy and information-policy consultant said.

Before working as a consultant, Ngo served as senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (EPIC) Identification and Surveillance Project. As Senior Counsel, she frequently advised state legislators on issues involving government surveillance and privacy rights.

“Where does the data come from—was it gathered legally for this purpose? How is it proved to be accurate and complete, so there won’t be problems with misidentification where an innocent individual is arrested or harassed,” she added. “Such deeply personal information as iris scans or other biometric data should only be legally gathered, used and shared with stringent protections in place to ensure the privacy and civil liberties of individuals are protected,”

Another concern raised by Ngo was the threat of law enforcement agencies sharing their collected data with civilian agencies within the government.

“What will it [the data] be used for—only specific crimes or will there be mission creep, allowing the use be broadened to civil matters,” she asked.


Additionally, government agents are using individuals’ Facebook account to compile private data about those people and their friends, in order to be able facilitate identification, should they commit a crime in the future.

With facial recognition technology built into Facebook’s “tagging friends” feature, and other information stored on an individual’s personal account, such data collected may be shared with third parties such as the national government.

Advocates of the new technologies argue there will be no infringement upon citizens’ privacy because Rapid DNA and biometric systems will help law enforcement quickly categorize the lawfully obtained DNA samples for the state and federal databases.

However, testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law in 2012, Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warned NGI would help facilitate situations in which “anyone could end up in the database — even if they’re not involved in a crime—by just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, by fitting a stereotype that some in society have decided is a threat, or by, for example, engaging in suspect activities such as political protest.”

According to the Daily Mail, the FBI’s new tracking systems were installed in 18,000 local and state law enforcement agencies in September . The FBI, however, plans to continue to expand the NGI’s functionality in the future, ultimately compiling and storing biometric data on at least 52 million unique individuals.

Hannah Yang ([email protected]) writes from Athens, Ohio.