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Why the FBI facial recognition plan should terrify us all

Land of the Free

Next Generation Identification. NGI. These three words and three letters are the most dangerous move the US Government has ever planned since Prohibition. It’s bigger than SOPA. It’s bigger than any privacy, detention, or body scanning debacle that the government has rolled out, and there have been plenty of them the last few years.

The $1 billion project isn’t just about facial recognition according to NewScientist. It “will also add biometrics such as iris scans, DNA analysis and voice identification to the toolkit.”

All of this should terrify us. The motives are (publicly) good – create a database of known and suspected criminals, grab shots from cameras placed around the country, and tie it all together with a complex algorithm to make finding criminals and suspects easier. Then again, nuclear science was initially started to create the ultimate power source to make the world better. The end result was bombs that can kill millions at a time.

Motives do not always equate to reality. Here are my three biggest concerns:


Association by proximity

The family is thrilled to be in this picture

There is a natural progression that will happen once this is a reality. At first, the idea is to help locate criminals and suspects. Over time (perhaps from the beginning) the technology will be used to find associates of criminals and suspects. These POIs (persons of interest) will likely also be plugged into the database.

Imagine walking through a train station and striking up a conversation with someone who is wearing a shirt from your alma mater. It happens all the time. Unbeknownst to you, this fellow Oregon Duck is suspected of kidnapping children and you’re now chatting, laughing, and shaking hands with this person. The system and the people behind it who cannot hear the nature of the conversation will want to know who you are. Could you be the person the suspect’s been chatting with online who also has an interest in children?

These are the questions that privacy advocates are posing in regards to the program and they’re right to do so. Standing in a crowd next to someone about to commit a crime can be enough to put you on a watchlist, under surveillance, or as part of the criminal investigation. It’s natural. The FBI and other authorities are the good guys wanting to stop the bad guys and it would be wrong for them to not track down every possible lead.

The problem is that every victory as a result will lead to more innocent people being flagged. At some point, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time will lead to an innocent person being hurt. It will happen.


Reliance on technology

Top Gun

There’s a line in Top Gun:

“During the Korean War, the Navy kill  ratio was twelve-to-one. We shot down  twelve of their jets for every one of  ours. In Vietnam, this ratio fell to  three-to-one. Our pilots depended on missiles. They lost their dogfighting skills.”

You can say the same thing about the FBI’s investigating skills when this program gets into full swing. Just like missiles, this technology will offer faster and more conclusive resolutions to many investigations. You lock on target and fire, just like with missiles. The problem is when you start relying on the technology itself and lose focus on what really solves the majority of crimes today: investigating.

Questioning people, following leads, checking physical evidence through CSI, and following the good ol’ fashion hunch – these are the tools that modern investigators use today to solve crimes. It’s not much different than it was 40 years ago. More tools have been added. Technologies have made things easier. Overall, the system is the same and it works very well. There will always be unsolved crimes, but the success rate is strong for a country so large.

NGI represents a shift in the way they’ll investigate. It will supersede many procedures. It will act as a shortcut in investigations and the results will be positive in many ways. Just as missiles represented a one-shot kill, NGI will represent a one-shot (of the camera) find of suspects.

The results, just as they were for Naval aviators in Korea, will be baffling at first. The FBI will lose their investigating skills just as the aviators lost their dogfighting skills because they will learn to rely on the one-shot kill.


Ambiguity of scope

Lots of People

Today, the plan is to start with known criminals.

To start.

There has been no indication from the FBI whether there are plans to load everyone into the database. Again, from a sheer law enforcement perspective, doing so would make sense. Why do we have to rely on repeat offenders alone in the database? Nobody is flagged as a criminal at birth. They have to commit a crime before they can be labeled as such. Why wouldn’t we want to put everyone in the database. That way, we have a better chance of finding people when they commit their first crime rather than relying on a system that only has known criminals.

Again, on the surface this seems like a good idea. Dig deeper, search your instincts, and you’ll realize that the potential for abuse of this ambiguity in the scope of the project can turn into something very, very dangerous. Dossiers will eventually be built (without our knowledge) that include where we go, what we’re doing, and who we’re with at any given point. This leads to the biggest potential problem of them all…


The Big Brother factor

Big Brother

We’ve all seen this before. When this is rolled out in 2014, it will mark the 30th anniversary of the fictional era of Big Brother. 1984 talked about cameras that know who you were, systems that tracked what you did, and activities that were banned. We’re heading in that direction now with NGI.

Again, don’t look at what it is planned to do at first. Think about what it can (and will) become. Americans are losing rights and having liberties stripped away. This has been a systematic breakdown of our way of life since September 11, 2001. We have done what we thought we had to do. The government has done what it thought it had to do. This continues to be the trend.

Unfortunately, human nature leads people towards abuses. Power gets abused. Position gets abused. Technologies get abused. NGI represents the next major step towards a society that is watched, profiled, and eventually controlled “for our own good.” It doesn’t matter whether you believe our best interests are in mind. It only matters that our best interests will not be upheld regardless of what the initial intentions are.


The social media dilemma

Facebook Logo

Let’s look at the worst case scenario here that nobody seems to be discussing: social media. There’s already a database in place that has over 100 million American faces. It has multiple images. It has established associations. We tell everyone where we are when we check in. We let everyone know what we’re doing with our status updates.

Social media, Facebook in particular, is the FBI’s dream database. As it grows, the wealth of information that can be drawn from it through the NGI is a goldmine. If you think for one second that this won’t be applied with or without our knowledge, you clearly don’t understand the intentions of our government. Don’t forget – they want to protect us at all costs, even if the cost is the ultimate sacrifice of privacy. Is it time to take everything off Facebook? Is it time to “go dark”? Possibly.

This is an extremely dangerous technology that will lead to absolute abuse. There is no doubt. It’s happening. Be aware.

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salajean /

What do you think?

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Written by JD Rucker

JD Rucker is Editor at Soshable, a Social Media Marketing Blog. He is a Christian, a husband, a father, and founder of both Judeo Christian Church and Dealer Authority. He drinks a lot of coffee, usually in the form of a 5-shot espresso over ice. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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