The FBI’s Studying Prisoner Tattoos—And Pissing Off Privacy Hawks

The FBI Is Studying Prisoner Tattoos – Privacy Hawks Are Pissed

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The FBI’s Studying Prisoner Tattoos—And Pissing Off Privacy Hawks

RGA/REA/Redux In 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in collaboration with the FBI, started studying how effective tattoo-recognition systems are, using tattoo images collected from inmates and arrestees to create a database that acts as a standardized metric. With the research set to expand dramatically, privacy advocates have raised serious concerns over not just how the research was conducted, but how law enforcement might use it in the future.

In a lengthy report , the Electronic Frontier Foundation lays out several apparent issues with NIST’s Tattoo Recognition Technology study. It used 15,000 FBI-provided images of tattoos from prisoners to create a data set, which the FBI then distributed to 19 outside parties. Those organizations, which ranged from universities to research institutions to private companies (including, EFF notes, MorphoTrak, which provides biometric tech to law enforcement agencies), applied their algorithms to data set, and reported back their effectiveness at identifying tattoos, identifying the same tattoo over time, and “matching common visual elements between tattoos” to help determine connections among individuals.

For its part, NIST maintains that because the study uses only isolated images, without accompanying information about the individuals from whom they came, it was not subject to the stringent regulation that would accompany human research studies.

“The project has been reviewed and determined to not meet the criteria for human subjects research as defined by federal regulations,” the organization said in a statement.

Tattoos, though, often don’t need accompanying information to help identify individuals. They can contain names, dates of birth, and other unique signifiers. More importantly, they can be used to identify someone’s religious, political, social, or other affiliation information that law enforcement can use to profile people, regardless of their actions.

NIST spokeswoman Gail Porter acknowledged the privacy concerns. “Once we were notified that a limited number of images could potentially contain identifiable information we notified the FBI,” she tells WIRED. Like a Tattoo

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