FBI's Face Files Could Include Yours

The FBI aims to collect up to 52 million facial images of both criminals and ordinary citizens by 2015.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aims to collect up to 52 million facial images of both criminals and ordinary citizens by 2015. These will be stored in a single expanded biometrics database that will allow law enforcement to search both criminal and non-criminal faces at the same time -- a capability that has some watchdog groups warning of possible privacy violations.

The FBI's growing collection of facial recognition data inside its Next Generation Identification (NGI) database already includes 16 million images as of the middle of 2013, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit group focused on digital rights. The agency's goal of expanding to 52 million images by 2015 also includes a possible 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes such as applying for a job. For the first time, U.S. law enforcement could run searches on both criminal and non-criminal faces simultaneously in the hunt for suspects.

That may provide a huge boost for law enforcement. But it also means that anyone submitting a photo as part of a background check for a job, applying for a driver's license or getting a passport could end up on a ranked list of faces when an FBI agent searches for suspects in the database. The EFF posted records detailing NGI's plans after obtaining them through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

NGI's database assigns a "Universal Control Number" to every criminal or non-criminal record on file. Each record could contain fingerprints, palm prints, iris scans and facial recognition data linked to individual information such as name, home address, ID number, immigration status, age, race, etc. NGI is built upon the FBI's legacy fingerprint database that already includes over 100 million individual records, but previous FBI databases never combined criminal records with the records of ordinary citizens.

The FBI records released to the EFF say that NGI's accuracy means any search will include the candidate suspect among the top 50 candidate faces about 85 percent of the time -- as long as the suspect's face is actually in the database. The facial recognition technology for the database was built by MorphoTrust, a company that also builds the face recognition systems used by 35 state DMVs, the U.S Department of State's facial recognition system (containing 244 million records), the U.S. Department of Defense, and many commercial businesses.

A system that flags innocent people's faces for investigation as possible suspects should ideally have technical or legal safeguards built in to avoid wrongly identifying innocents as criminals. But the FBI records state that "there should be NO legal issues" because the database search is only an "investigative search" that still requires law enforcement agencies to be responsible for identifying the actual suspects.

The facial recognition technology also still faces some technical challenges in accurately identifying people. For instance, an FBI project with the state of Oregon, called "Face Report Card," found that many of Oregon's face images on file had huge problems with image resolution, lighting, background and interference. Many of the images also had resolutions below the recommended resolution of 0.75 megapixels.

That probably won't provide much comfort for privacy advocates until the FBI clarifies its NGI usage and the legal implications of searching for suspect faces among the general population. Meanwhile, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies probably hope that cosmetic facial surgery doesn't catch on in a big way among lawbreakers.

Anyone submitting a photo as part of a background check for a job, applying for a driver's license or getting a passport could end up on a ranked list of faces when an FBI agent searches for suspects in the database.

A new


from security researcher Brian Krebs said that 40 million people who shopped at Target stores in the three days following Thanksgiving this year may have had their information stolen. According to Krebs, "The type of data stolen -- also known as “track data” -- allows crooks to create counterfeit cards by encoding the information onto any card with a magnetic stripe."

He also said that if the hackers intercepted PIN data for transactions, they could reproduce stolen debit cards and use them to withdraw cash from ATMs. In the meantime, the data breach is being investigated by the Secret Service. But that doesn't help the millions of people who have been the victims of fraud. It begs the question, how much longer do we have to put up with credit card number theft?

Thankfully, researchers are coming up with many new ways to pay for products and services that, in the future, won't require a credit card. Here are just a few.

5 Ways To Shop Safely This Holiday


Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have come up with PayTango, a new payment system that uses a fingerprint scanner to identify shoppers and provide them with one easy way to check out. If Target stores had this technology, the customer could press their finger on the payment pad instead of entering a PIN. Since a fingerprint cannot be duplicated, only the credit card owner would be authorized. It takes 20 seconds to sign up with PayTango, and is a good way to consolidate your bank, ID and gift cards into a one thing you'll never leave the house with: your finger.


You also never the leave the house without your face. This technology from Uniqual scans unique features of your face to identify you and authorize a payment from an account you've created. To make your purchase, just smile at the camera.


Researchers at MIT wanted to use off-the-shelf technology to develop a creative method for making a payment. They developed the Sesame Ring, which give commuters access to the subway in Boston. The ring was 3-D printed and embedded with a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip compatible with the city’s MBTA CharlieCard, a rechargeable fare card. To catch a ride, just tap and go.


As part of campaign by Russia's 2014 Olympic Committee to "add elements of sport into daily life," vending machines installed in Moscow subways give away a free ticket to anyone who can do 30 squats. Here, Olympic champion gymnast Yelena Zamolodchikova gets a ticket, no problem.


The ability to pay by phone is extremely popular throughout Asia and Africa, where tap-and-go technology allows people in Tokyo, for example, to touch a phone to an NFC wireless pad and instantly make a purchase. In Africa, people routinely make payments via text message. In the United States, paying with a phone is slowly gaining ground with apps that work on both iPhone and Android smartphones. The phones need to be equipped with the wireless NFC chip and only work at cash registers equipped with a compatible NFC pad.


An Apple patent granted in 2011 details an “ad-hoc cash-dispensing network that allows users to efficiently exchange cash.” The idea is that a cash-strapped you would summon your app, which would use the location service on your phone to locate others in the area willing to part with a few bucks for a fee. Once you rendezvous, the transaction can be made. The human ATM would get reimbursed through an online account that both of you have signed into.


The Coin card combines all of your swipe-able cards (credit cards, debit cards, gift cards) into one handy place. A card-swipe dongle ships with the device and you must download an app to combine all of your cards onto the Coin. But once all of the information is stored on Coin all you need to do is tap a button on the card, toggle through your payment choice and select the appropriate method. Credit or debit?


Lately, how you pay is almost as important as what you pay with. The distributed peer-to-peer digital currency bitcoin functions without the intermediation of any government or central authority. One can purchase bitcoins using U.S. dollars and hold onto them as they gain value. Bitcoin payment processing fees are lower than those of credit cards and so there are incentives to spend them. In this photo, a man buys bitcoins from the world's first bitcoin ATM, owned by the company Bitcoiniacs, which went live inside a downtown Vancouver coffee shop.