FBI to track suspects by their tattoos

The FBI is working on a system to track people by their tattoos.

One in five people in the US have a tattoo, most of them being a unique identifier for that person. The FBI along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology have been working on a new database that will see algorithms work on recognising and cataloguing people by their unique tattoos, writes Kevin Kelly.

After being built over the last two years, the database will be used by the FBI and law enforcers to track and find those suspected of being involved in crimes. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which defends civil liberties online, is worried about the outcome of the database, believing that it could falsely accuse people of being associated with crimes or criminal gangs due to similarly themed tattoos, as well as intruding on free speech.

This research was carried out by the FBI and US government scientists on prisoners, with the EFF claiming this was done without any consent from the prisoners. This might cause huge ethical problems for the FBI as a breach of the rules of ethical research in the States, something that the EFF insists wasn’t a “procedural hiccup”. 

NIST has been defending the database, saying that the ink can “suggest affiliation to gangs, subcultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology”.

Any officials who use the database may be able to arrest those involved in crime before they actually commit any wrong. If someone is found with a tattoo in the same design or location as a convicted criminal, then they could be pre-emptively arrested. This could severely limit freedom of expression, which the EFF says includes ink on a person’s body. 

The EFF said that NIST have given “no public indication that it will take any action to delay or suspend the program”. Early attempts at building the database saw 15,000 images of tattoos gathered, most of which are believed to be gang related. The next step in the project could include over 100,000 images.