Group sues agencies for info on tattoo recognition technology

Group sues agencies for info on tattoo recognition technology
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, is suing government agencies for information on tattoo recognition technology being developed to assist law enforcement.

The EFF filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on Thursday against the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which are collaborating on the new technology.

The group is concerned that tattoo recognition programs raise concerns about privacy violations and could infringe on First Amendment rights to free expression.

“Tattoos have served as an expression of the self for thousands of years, and can represent our innermost thoughts, closely held beliefs, and significant moments,” EFF fellow Camille Fischer said in a statement. “If law enforcement is creating a detailed database of tattoos, we have to make sure that everyone’s rights to freedom of expression are protected.”

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According to the lawsuit, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an office within the Department of Commerce, began studying how to improve tattoo recognition programs in 2014 to use for the identification and linking individuals to others with similar tattoos. With the help of the FBI, it created a database of 15,000 images and allowed access to researchers from public and private institutions.

DHS also participated in the program to research and map gang markings in tattoos and graffiti.

A DHS spokesman said it does not comment on pending litigation. The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, did not respond when asked for comment.

"The NIST Tattoo Recognition Technology program seeks to measure the effectiveness of algorithms for accurately matching digital images," said Jennifer Huergo, a NIST spokeswoman. "Its goal is to help ensure tattoo matching technologies are evaluated using sound science to improve accuracy and minimize mismatches."

The lawsuit alleges that the database used images of tattoos from prisoners without their consent and that “officials handed over these images to third-parties with little restriction on how they could be used or shared.”

EFF filed a series of FOIA requests in 2016 and 2017 for information on the program, its ethical oversight and those who had access to its dataset. In its lawsuit, the group alleges that the three agencies are improperly withholding information that falls within the scope of its requests.

“Federal researchers say they want to ‘crack the code’ of tattoos and speech, creating a powerful program that will encourage police to make assumptions about tattoo-wearers,” said Aaron Mackey, an EFF attorney. “But the reality is that body art is much more complex than that. The government must disclose more about this program so we can ensure that it doesn’t violate our rights.”

Updated: 4:49 p.m.