Are we ready for the FBI’s Next Generation Identification? (NGI)

biometrics1 (2Paranoia in the pines
A few months ago, I went to a music festival in the deep woods. In a remote location, thousands of people gathered to have a good time.

The only fly in the ointment was the rampant paranoia. Planes and helicopters were constantly circling overhead. Rumors came fast and furious. Several times, a festival participant informed me that the aircraft were scanning the crowds using facial recognition technology to capture images that would be evaluated for outstanding warrants. Some people at the festival had previous brushes with the law. More significantly, many feared that local law enforcement wanted to raise revenue for their jurisdiction; they thought that facial recognition technology would enable law officers to identify and arrest festival goers on spurious charges.

Wherever I went at the festival, I did my best to dispel these fears. Such technology doesn’t exist yet, I told disbelieving music lovers. Even if it did, it would be used by the NSA or CIA to search for high-value targets in Waziristan, not by a small town sheriff looking at someone dancing in a drum circle (a forest ranger told me the aircraft were privately owned by rich people who wanted to scope out the crowd, probably looking for scantily clad women).

The FBI is working hard to justify your paranoia
I thought of these rumors when I read FBI’s announcement about their Next Generation Identification (NGI) System. Among the many touted improvements are:

“Currently, the IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) can accept photographs (mugshots) with criminal ten-print submissions. The Interstate Photo System (IPS) will allow customers to add photographs to previously submitted arrest data, submit photos with civil submissions, and submit photos in bulk formats. The IPS will also allow for easier retrieval of photos, and include the ability to accept and search for photographs of scars, marks, and tattoos. In addition, this initiative will also explore the capability of facial recognition technology.”

As mentioned above, the FBI already has the national database of IAFIS for fingerprints. They plan to include iris and facial recognition, because:

“The future of identification systems is currently progressing beyond the dependency of a unimodal (e.g., fingerprint) biometric identifier towards multimodal biometrics (i.e., voice, iris, facial, etc.)…Once developed and implemented, the NGI initiatives and multimodal functionality will promote a high level of information sharing, support interoperability, and provide a foundation for using multiple biometrics for positive identification.”

Sounds like the FBI is making the festival goers’ paranoia a reality, not just in terms of implementing new technology, but also in expanding access to these new tools. As Al Jazeera America put it:

“The FBI has invested considerable energy in recent months in marketing a massive new biometric database to local cops, whom the agency will rely on to help feed it billions of fingerprints, palm prints, mug shots, iris scans and images of scars, tattoos and other identifiers.”

To learn what police are thinking of the FBI’s biometric initiative, I sent some news clippings to Retired Assistant Chief William Leist of the California Highway Patrol (currently, AMREL’s Director of Public Safety Programs). He let me know that AMREL is already developing solutions that will work with the FBI’s NGI. He wrote to me:

“Gone are the days when law enforcement officers needed to arrest, transport to a jail facility, and print an individual who’s identity was in question. FBI’s NGI and AMREL’s Biometric Mobile ID solution will allow officers to quickly identify suspects in the field. This technology will not only enhance officer safety and efficiency, but will also enhance public safety by allowing officers to remain in the field on proactive patrol. Moreover, because this technology can accommodate in-field biometric database enrollments, it opens a host of other options such as mobile booking or cite and release of low level offenders. I don’t believe NGI will replace fingerprints as the article suggests, but it will certainly enhance our biometric ID capabilities and lead to more bad-guys behind bars.”

So, an experience law officer like Bill Leist is onboard for this initiative, and is even working with AMREL to develop biometric solutions that are compatible with it. I’m all for catching bad guys, but even with great mobile biometric devices, I see a few bugs in this expansive national system of identification.

Who pays for all this?
The hardware for capturing palm prints, iris and facial patterns will impact local police departments’ limited resources. More than one police veteran has told me that “There is no such thing as ‘cop proof’ equipment.” Expensive gear routinely gets trashed in the line of duty. To save money on maintenance and repair, police departments will have to spend extra for fully ruggedized biometric devices.

What about all the legacy devices?
Are cash-strapped departments going to scrap their old equipment, because they are incompatible with the FBI’s NGI? Some kind of FAP45 – compatible “biometric add-on” might help with the problem of heterogeneous hardware.

What about the data?
An even greater financial drain will be the “back end.” Managing and processing the torrent of police-generated images will be more costly than the hardware. Unfortunately, most vendors for these solutions target a few large police departments, so their offerings are overpowered and too expensive for the typical small-to-medium sized agency. A month-to-month Software as a Solution (SaaS) might help departments with tight budgets.

What about the training?
With wearable cameras, push-to-talk radios, portable computers and many other gadgets, an average patrolman is getting overwhelmed with technology. He is also overwhelmed with training for all these wonderful devices. Police are certified yearly on their weapons, but as far as I know, only Virginia regularly tests officers on their radio and communication skills. By seeking high-tech solutions, are we subjecting officers to cognitive overload?

What about FirstNet?
Is the FBI’s NGI compatible with FirstNet, the national program for an interoperable network to transmit Public Safety data? In spite of the publicity Firstnet has generated, some departments are barely aware of its existence. What happens if they buy biometric equipment that is not FirstNet compatible?

Despite my skepticism, it seems likely that the FBI’s vision of an integrated national, multimodal biometric database will be a reality. Perhaps, the next time I am surrounded by festival goers afraid of the eye-the-sky, I won’t so casually dismiss their fears. I will simply assure them that it is unlikely the local police can afford to process the thousands of images generated by such a canvassing operation.