The real Facebook: a photo database of every U.S. citizen

Jesse Brown on fear and facial recognition

Is the U.S. government trying to create a biometric database of every American’s face? The answer depends on whom you ask, whom you trust, and how you define “biometric.”

Here’s what we know: The U.S. Senate is debating immigration reform legislation that contains an “identity authentication” clause calling for the Department of Homeland Security to establish and administer a “photo tool.” The tool would use facial recognition technology to ensure employers only hire people who are legally allowed to work in America.

As Wired reported, for this to function, an applicant’s photo would have to be run against a database of every single citizen and legally landed immigrant. Wired called the suggested photo library an expansive “biometric database” leading to a National I.D card — a much-feared concept by freedom-loving Americans on either side of the political spectrum.

The Daily Beast jumped on the story to supposedly debunk a few points:

1. A photo is not biometric data, argued the Beast’s Justin Green. Biometric is a future-tech word, so surely it refers to such things as iris scans, DNA and fingerprints. That kind of stuff is being collected under the bill, but only on immigrants — so real Americans can relax!

2.  If you have a U.S. passport, the U.S. government already has your photograph. Driver’s licence photos or pictures from any other state-issued I.D. would require separate deals between state and federal governments.

3. Wired’s “slippery slope” argument holds that a photo database created for employment verification will inevitably be used for other purposes, leading to the dreaded National I.D. Card. Justin Green calls B.S. on this, since the immigration reform bill, anticipating these concerns, plainly states “nothing in this section may be construed to directly or indirectly authorize the issuance, use, or establishment of a national identification card.”

So Wired should relax, right?  Maybe not. Let’s debunk the debunking in reverse order:

3. Mission creep is never by design. A database of American mug shots is a high value intelligence asset. If the FBI wanted access after a terrorist attack, they’d get it.

2. About 36 per cent of Americans have passports.  Even if the federal government does not pursue photo-sharing deals with each state — and I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t — that’s still a whole lot of data that was volunteered by citizens who just wanted a passport. (Mission creep, remember?)

1. Biometric data, as Think Progress points out, is commonly defined as “physiological traits that are distinctly unique to you.” It’s true face photos are less unique than DNA, iris scans or fingerprints. State-of-the-art facial recognition techniques boast about 92 per cent accuracy in picking out an individual from a crowd of 1.6 million based on photos.

But this is cause for more concern, not less. Ninety-two per cent accuracy means eight per cent inaccuracy, which could mean thousands of false-positives.  Remember the false positives in the Boston marathon bombings, and you’ll have some idea of how destructive this could be.

Justin Green of the Daily Beast accepted Think Progress’ criticism, and recanted the point that facial photos aren’t, by definition, biometric. But the real point is they are crappy biometrics. Facial recognition is a dangerous technology–easily fooled by those looking to evade it, and easily prone to mistakenly fingering those who have done no wrong.

We’ve stumbled into creating such a database in Canada.

Our new e-Passports contain digital copies of passport photos to be used by facial-recognition software, stored by our leak-prone, hack-prone federal government. Just as worrisome, the Canadian government has a troubling record of handing over data on its citizens to the United States when bullied hard enough.

Those who warn of an international biometric database are not paranoid — they’re rational.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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