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FBI aims to catalogue and track people by their tattoos

The FBI is working on software that will track and link people based on the tattoos they choose to ink on their skin. This is different from the current method they have in place, which usually comprises of a physical book of photos, or rudimentary database. This new project would allow law enforcement to look up a tattoo on a prisoner or arrestee and immediately find out if it is linked to a gang, hate group or religious organization. The Electronic Frontier Foundation published details of the plan in a mandate this week arguing that the program was both invasive and breaks the Common Rule of ethics in regards to prisoners in the US penal system.

The initiative, which began in 2014, is a joint project between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition to other forms of biometric identification, the government agencies are working to add tattoos as a way to identify and track people based on their “affiliations to gangs, sub-cultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs or political ideology.”

The way they are collecting this data, the EFF finds, is through photos taken of prisoners, and it would appear to be without their consent or permission for how these photos would be used. That is, if they were even aware the photos were being taken in the first place. Over 15,000 images were collected in the first round, and only after the first round of data was run and tested was permission sought from supervisors at jails and police stations.

This is in clear violation of what is known as the Common Rule, a standard of practice put in place to keep “vulnerable subjects,” including prisoners, from being unduly experimented on without proper oversight. In addition to the photos, which sometimes were sourced from even routine traffic stops, the data collected was then handed off to third parties. Ninteen to be exact – “five research institutions, six universities, and eight private companies.”

That first initiative, which stemmed from the Tattoo Recognition Technology imitative form 2014, was called TATT-C – Tattoo Recognition Technology Challenge. The goal was to develop a standardized metric algorithm for tattoo recognition. Those third party organizations turned these findings back over to NIST, with the main goal being to establish visual connections between people based on their tattoos.

This summer, NIST will take their work to the next level with TATT-E. The Evaulation portion of the experiment, which plans to comb through some 100,000 images to create an even larger dataset.

While the EFF and many individuals find this experiment as a whole a breach of personal liberty and self expression, the main sticking point is the lack of oversight in collecting the images and how they are used. Despite the FBI and NIST claims that no personal identification markers could be linked with the tattoos, the EFF was able to find tattoo images linked with inmates names, date of birth, and  photos of their face. It’s obviously not an experiment being conducted with the safety and security of the inmates in mind.

Furthermore, having software that profiles people based on the art they elect to put on their body is setting a dangerous precedent, already in a system where people are profiled based on the color of their skin and religious orientation. There are many reasons why people get tattoos, and there are many people who may have gotten a tattoo that symbolizes something negative at one point in their life and have since left that life. It’s like being arrested for a crime before you commit it.

The EFF is committed to making sure our civil and cyber liberties are not abused, and have put an open call out to end the government’s research on tattoo recognition. It may not be enough to stop a system that’s already in place, but it may bring the right attention to a program that could use some eyes overseeing it.

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