FBI launches face recognition project

The Next Generation Identification program will include a nationwide database of criminal faces and other biometric data
September 10, 2012

Next Generation Identification (credit: FBI)

As part of an update to the national fingerprint database, the FBI has begun rolling out facial recognition to identify criminals, New Scientist reports.

It will form part of the bureau’s long-awaited, $1 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, which will also add biometrics such as iris scans, DNA analysis, and voice identification to the toolkit. A handful of states began uploading their photos as part of a pilot program this February and it is expected to be rolled out nationwide by 2014.

Applications include tracking a suspect by picking out their face in a crowd and comparing images of a person of interest (from security cameras or public photos uploaded onto the Internet) against a national repository of images held by the FBI. An algorithm would perform an automatic search and return a list of potential hits for an officer to sort through and use as possible leads for an investigation.

The FBI’s Jerome Pender told the Senate in July that the searchable photo database used in the pilot studies only includes mugshots of known criminals. But it’s unclear from the NGI’s privacy statement whether that will remain the case once the entire system is up and running or if civilian photos might be added, says attorney Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tests in 2010 showed that the best algorithms can pick someone out in a pool of 1.6 million mugshots 92 per cent of the time. It’s possible to match a mugshot to a photo of a person who isn’t looking at the camera too. Algorithms such as one developed by Marios Savvides’s lab at Carnegie Mellon can analyse features of a front and side view set of mugshots, create a 3D model of the face, rotate it as much as 70 degrees to match the angle of the face in the photo, and then match the new 2D image with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

Of course, it is easier to match up posed images and the FBI has already partnered with issuers of state drivers’ licenses for photo comparison. Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union urges caution: “Once you start plugging this into the FBI database, it becomes tantamount to a national photographic database.”