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FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics

Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed.
Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed. (Photos By Bob Shaw For The Washington Post)

In 2004, the Electronic Privacy Information Center objected to the FBI's exemption of the National Crime Information Center database from the Privacy Act requirement that records be accurate. The group noted that the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2001 found that information in the system was "not fully reliable" and that files "may be incomplete or inaccurate." FBI officials justified that exemption by claiming that in law enforcement data collection, "it is impossible to determine in advance what information is accurate, relevant, timely and complete."

Privacy advocates worry about the ability of people to correct false information. "Unlike say, a credit card number, biometric data is forever," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. He said he feared that the FBI, whose computer technology record has been marred by expensive failures, could not guarantee the data's security. "If someone steals and spoofs your iris image, you can't just get a new eyeball," Saffo said.

In the future, said CITeR director Lawrence A. Hornak, devices will be able to "recognize us and adapt to us."

"The long-term goal," Hornak said, is "ubiquitous use" of biometrics. A traveler may walk down an airport corridor and allow his face and iris images to be captured without ever stepping up to a kiosk and looking into a camera, he said.

"That's the key," he said. "You've chosen it. You have chosen to say, 'Yeah, I want this place to recognize me.' "

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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