With their dangerous crusade for an anti-encryption bill in Congress all but dead (for now), the FBI and US justice department are now engaged in a multi-pronged attack on all sorts of other privacy rights – this time, with much less public scrutiny.
A report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office harshly criticized the FBI last week for its little discussed but frequently used facial recognition database and called on the bureau to implement myriad privacy and safety protections. It turns out the database has far more photos than anyone thought – 411.9m to be exact – and the vast majority are not mugshots of criminals, but driver’s license photos from over a dozen states and passport photos of millions of completely innocent people. The feds searched it over 36,000 times from 2011 to 2015 (no court order needed) while also apparently having no idea how accurate it is.
Worse, the FBI wants its hundreds of millions of facial recognition photos – along with its entire biometric database that includes fingerprints and DNA profiles – to be exempt from important Privacy Act protections. As the Intercept reported two weeks ago: “Specifically, the FBI’s proposal would exempt the database from the provisions in the Privacy Act that require federal agencies to share with individuals the information they collect about them and that give people the legal right to determine the accuracy and fairness of how their personal information is collected and used.”
In Congress, Senate Republicans are pushing for a vote this week on controversial new warrantless surveillance measures that would let the FBI use unconstitutional National Security Letters to get email records and internet browsing history from countless US citizens – without going to a judge or court at all. The Senate leadership is bringing the measure up to vote by invoking the Orlando attack, despite the fact that we know the FBI had no problem surveilling the Orlando killer when he was previously investigated. It is a blatant attempt to exploit the tragedy in order to gain powers the FBI has long asked for (powers, by the way, the FBI is already reportedly using, despite the justice department telling them it’s basically illegal).