FBI creating an automated tattoo recognition project

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has sounded an alarm over a joint project between the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop automated tattoo recognition technologies.

A research report, published by NIST in September 2015, analyzed an “open tattoo database” of 16,716 tattoo images collected operationally by law enforcement. Images in the database contained personally identifying information, including people's names, faces, and birth dates, the EFF stated.

NIST's Tattoo Recognition Technology program “raises serious questions for privacy: 15,000 images of tattoos obtained from arrestees and inmates were handed over to third parties, including private companies, with little restriction on how the images may be used or shared,” wrote investigative researcher Dave Maass and Frank Stanton Legal Fellow Aaron Mackey, in an EFF blog post.

The EFF warned that tattoos “unique because they're elective (people generally choose to get tattoos) and expressive (they say things about our personal lives).”

The research report, conducted by NIST with funding from the FBI, noted that research into automated tattoo recognition and retrieval technologies is “not a mature domain.” The report sought to “determine what methods are effective and viable” in using automated image-based technologies to analyze tattoos.

“Importantly, tattoos are also speech, and any attempt to identify, profile, sort, or link people based on their ink raises significant First Amendment questions,” the privacy organization stated.

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