Big Brother gets a boost from bleeding edge technology
President Barack Obama wants to trim defense spending. Former Mass. Governor and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants to bump the defense budget. But one thing both agree on funding is funding the U.S. National Intelligence Agency
's (NIA) ambitious facial recognition bid, which along with other advanced identification efforts, currently has been earmarked $1B USD in Congressional funding.
I. Facial Recognition is Now
Much of the funding goes to researchers working at Pittsburgh, Penn.'s Carnegie Mellon University
. By 2010, CMU reported
[PDF] to Congress that it could pick out a person's face out of a database of 1.6m mug shots approximately 92 percent of the time. While that high success rate did require the target be looking at the camera, Marios Savvide
's lab is working to improve the algorithms so they can recognize faces at other angles too -- even if the person is looking away.
Using a 3D model of the face, the CMU algorithms render expected images from various angles for comparison. Currently, the biggest challenge is lighting. Results can be improved by augmenting the visible light data with infrared camera images -- but infrared cameras are expensive, and are relatively rare at public locations.
© Hang the Bankers
The FBI is spending hundreds of millions in an effort to track U.S. citizens in public and on the internet, using advanced facial recognition.
CMU researcher Alessandro Acquisti
in July testimony
[PDF] before the U.S. Senate told the legislators, "FACE recognition is 'now'."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is indeed looking to roll the technology out as part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program. The program will also add other biometric identification technologies, including iris scans, DNA analysis, and voice identification.
Interpol -- an international policing body -- has long maintained a similar database to target high profile criminals such as international thieves, terrorists, and child sex predators.
But the new NGI effort, to be rolled out nationwide by 2014, represents the first effort to create a database of images of all criminal offenders in America. Some states already have begun to upload their photos at the program's kickoff in February. Currently the FBI's publicly announced plans have been limited to facial recognition on criminals.
II. Fighting Crime, or "Big Brother is Watching YOU"?
However, the FBI has also hinted that it might add photos of individuals under investigation, or individuals who appeared near high-profile persons of interest to the database. The latter prospect has privacy advocates most alarmed, as it could land you on "Big Brother's database" without a single criminal act.
In fact, the FBI appears to be doing exactly that already, as some states now pass drivers' license headshots to the agency for future reference/screening. The ambiguity surrounding photographic databases and facial recognition of law-abiding citizens has advocacies very upset.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
attorney Jennifer Lynch told
the publication New Scientist
that her nonprofit advocacy is concerned that the FBI is creeping towards civilian photographic databases with these efforts. And Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union
comments, "Once you start plugging this into the FBI database, it becomes tantamount to a national photographic database."
The FBI has bipartisan support for developing facial recognition algorithms and databases to spot U.S. citizens - regardless of whether they're criminals.
The prospect is a frightening one for several reasons. First, some fear it could lead to an escalation in the "war on drugs", which already is responsible for the U.S.'s world leading imprisonment rate. Second, some fear that it is a step towards an Orwellian system of crackdown on dissenters; after all, the trademark of George Orwell's iconic 1984 was "Big Brother is watching you." Finally, such systems could easily lead to micro-scale abuses without sufficient transparency and regulation; for example an agent could potentially use the system to stalk an ex.
In short, there are many questions to be asked. But Congress and the intelligence agencies are leaning towards pushing the program now, and shelving answers to those questions for a later date. With the majority leadership of both parties on a federal level eager to expand domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens and throwing money at the objective, the plans are poised to rapidly escalate over the next couple years.