By Sunita Patel and Gitanjali Gutierrez, Staff Attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Travis Hall, PhD Candidate at the Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

Since 2006, the FBI has been quietly creating a massive new biometric database that is, in their words, “Bigger- Better- Faster.” Known as the “Next Generation Identification” program, or NGI, this new system marks a dramatic leap in the FBI’s ability to collect, store and share identifying information across government agencies. Alarm bells should ring for all Americans concerned with their privacy.

Relying on “state of the art” biometric technology, NGI will use your physical traits (like eye scans and facial characteristics) to create identifications at lightning speed. While this may not seem terrible on its face, the real thrust of NGI is for multiple federal agencies to share your personal information without your knowledge. Through a series of disclosure programs, the FBI’s NGI database, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigration database and the Department of Defense’s biometric database can now search and share matches. Moreover, the FBI hopes to expand the use of “Mobile” biometric units, which are biometric scanners that will send personal identifying information to all participating federal agencies, even for people who have not been arrested.

Given the troubled history of abuses with similar cross-agency collaborations, the erosion of walls between agencies with different purposes and the blanket exceptions granted these agencies from any kind of external oversight (e.g. the 1974 Privacy Act), the development of NGI is more than disturbing. The multiplier effect of an error is clear— a mistake in one federal database, let alone the databases it spreads to, can cause egregious harm to an individual, and, currently, correcting these mistakes is impossible, even if you know which database is responsible.

This raises another concern: information from state and local law enforcement feeds these databases. One of the key elements to NGI’s initial implementation for fingerprints was the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program dubiously named “Secure Communities” that threw state law enforcement into the database sharing morass. Similar to the widely criticized anti-immigrant Arizona law, Secure Communities turns local cops investigating crimes into federal civil immigration agents.

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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