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Uber, Lyft among those hitting FBI for fingerprint, photos database
Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft joined advocacy groups on Tuesday, saying they're "deeply concerned" about an FBI database of fingerprints, iris scans and photos and the agency's attempt to exempt it from some privacy rules.
"The FBI has a responsibility to make the [Next Generation Identification] database as transparent as possible," said Alvaro Bedoya, the director of the Center on Privacy and Technology, in a statement. "Instead, the FBI is trying to cloak that database in secrecy and legal immunity. This is a serious mistake."
The FBI has asked that the database, known as the Next Generation Identification system, be exempt from provisions in privacy law that would allow people to learn more about the records the FBI keeps on them or sue the agency over certain violations related to the system.
"In certain cases, some of these exemptions may be warranted," the groups and companies said in their letter. "As a whole, they seem to go far beyond that."
The agency told The Washington Post it wanted to use the exemptions to prevent public access to aspects of the system from sabotaging its crime fighting efforts.
"The FBI and the Department of Justice take very seriously their strict compliance with the Constitution, federal law particularly the Privacy Act, and their own policies regarding the free exercise of constitutional rights," they told the newspaper.
The coalition behind the letter is asking for at least 30 more days for the public to comment on the proposed exemptions.
The system's opponents said that they were worried about the civil rights implications of the facial recognition technology that could be used with the database.
They said that the system "likely includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants."
"This is a problem from a technical perspective, as a body of research - including research authored by FBI personnel - suggests that some of the biometrics at the core of NGI, like facial recognition, may misidentify African Americans, young people, and women at higher rates than whites, older people, and men, respectively."
Signatories include traditional privacy advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The letter had 45 signatures in total.
But Uber and Lyft also signed on to the letter. The companies have pushed back against the idea that fingerprint-based background checks are more rigorous than the name-based checks they generally use.
"We believe the right path forward is to continue to improve the level of transparency and accountability that's built-into our service and the processes available for screening drivers," wrote Uber Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan in a blog post about the Tuesday letter.
"Instead of relying solely on flawed databases that are known to have information gaps, our technology makes it possible to focus on safety before, during and after every trip."