FBI Wants Computers To Scan Your Tattoos To Learn All About You

Image courtesy of Vileinist

Law enforcement has long used tattoos as a way to identify people (“The suspect has the name ‘Marge’ on his forearm”), or as an indicator of group membership (“All members of the gang had the same exact tattoo on their forearms”), but the FBI’s in-development tattoo recognition program seeks to create an algorithm to make instant inferences about a person’s behavior based on their tattoos.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that for the better part of the past two years, the FBI has been working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create tattoo recognition systems that police can use to learn as much as possible about people through their tattoos.

The Tattoo Recognition Technology features a database of nearly 15,000 tattoo images intended to map connections between people with similarly themed tattoos or make inferences about people from their tattoos.

For example, the NIST believes the ink can “suggest affiliation to gangs, subcultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology” along with “contain[ing] intelligence; messages, meaning and motivation.”

While NIST and the FBI plan to expand the current database to about 100,000 tattoo images, EFF is calling on the organizations to suspend the projects over privacy concerns.

As it stands, EFF suggests that NIST’s database is made up of images of tattoos that belong to arrestees and inmates.

Additionally, those images — which include personally identifying information, such as people’s names, faces, and birth dates — were then provided to third parties that have little restriction on how they can use the photos.

The 19 organizations — five research institutions, six universities, and eight private companies — that obtained the images performed a series of tests on the data that included identifying whether an image contained a tattoo and whether algorithms could match different images of the same tattoo taken over time.

EFF also claims that NIST is breaking its own rules by providing the images to third parties, as many of the tattoos include personally identifiable information such as a person’s religion, data of birth, or activities.

“Several of the images contained text spelling the names of family members,” the report states. “In at least two cases, these included the full names of the family members. In another tattoo, a 14-year-old child’s name was listed along with her date of birth.”

The Foundation also claims that NIST researches failed to follow protocol for ethical research of humans.

In one case the group found that researchers only sought permission from supervisors after the first set of experiments were completed.

“These same researchers have also not disclosed to their supervisors that the tattoo datasets they are using to seed the experiments came from prisoners and arrestees,” EFF’s investigation found. “Under federal research guidelines, research involving prisoners triggers enhanced scrutiny and ethical oversight to prevent their exploitation. Instead, NIST and the FBI are treating inmates as an endless supply of free data.”

In light of these potential privacy violations, EFF called on NIST and the FBI to take steps to remediate damage caused by the experiments, and suspend the program’s planned expansion.

Tattoo Recognition Research Threatens Free Speech and Privacy [Electronic Frontier Foundation]