Exclusive: U.S. expansion of biometric tech poses ‘grave danger,’ ACLU tells Raw Story

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, March 25, 2011 13:09 EDT
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A recent announcement by the Federal Bureau of Investigations detailing plans to embark on a $1 billion biometrics project and construct an advanced biometrics facility to be shared with the Pentagon has the American Civil Liberties Union on red alert.

In an exclusive interview with Raw Story, attorney Chris Calabrese, an ACLU’s legislative counsel in Washington, D.C., warned that this move in particular was indicative of a fast approaching mass surveillance state that poses a “grave danger” to American values.

The FBI’s forthcoming biometrics center will be based on a system constructed by defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and part of that system is already operating today in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Starting with fingerprints, and creating a global law enforcement database for the sharing of those biometric images, the system is slated to expand outward, eventually encompassing facial mapping and other advanced forms of computer-aided identification.

To help ramp up the amount of data flooding into this center, the FBI said that electronic fingerprint scanners would be sent to state and local police agencies, which would be empowered to capture prints from any suspect, even if they haven’t been arrested or convicted of a crime.

“We think rolling out these kind of invasive measures is really another step toward mass surveillance of the population,” Calabrese told Raw Story. “I mean, now if you’re just walking around on the street, do you think that automatically police should be able to check your fingerprint? Seems very invasive to us.”

But it’s more than just invasive, he suggested: it’s a fundamental revolution in American values.

“Facial recognition is one of the most invasive biometrics because it allows surreptitious tracking at a distance,” Calabrese continued. “They can secretly track you from camera to camera, location to location. That has enormous implications, not just for security but also for American society. I mean, we are now at a point where we can automatically track people. Computers could do that. That’s what, we think, is a grave danger to our privacy.”

And it’s not just a rhetorical threat, where — as many a police officer has said — if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide. It could actually go so far as changing the culture of law enforcement as a whole, Calabrese said.

“Law enforcement’s focus should stay where it’s been for a 100 years: finding bad guys, but since 9/11 the focus has shifted toward terrorism. It’s suddenly this idea that’s like, well, let’s scrutinize the whole U.S. population before trying to find bad guys.”

He went on: “In the United States, you’re innocent until proven guilty for a reason. You’re supposed to have the right and the ability to live your life free of government scrutiny. That’s fundamental to American values.

“That’s what we’re really talking about here: a shift in American values, from a place where you can live your life unencumbered by government scrutiny to one where you really have to worry whether the government is watching you either through a video camera, or a police officer who could step up and potentially ask you for a fingerprint at any time.”

Mr. President, tear down this list

Another item in the FBI’s announcement that alarmed civil libertarians was the creation of yet another database dedicated to tracking certain individuals. The FBI said this latest database, called the “Repository for Individuals of Special Concern,” would only focus on wanted criminals, registered sex offenders and “suspected terrorists.”

But considering the Obama administration’s secretive policy which strips Miranda rights from U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism — a policy issued in January and revealed yesterday by The Wall Street Journal — that database could become a flashpoint.

Miranda rights are what allows suspects to remain silent in the face of police questioning, and have an attorney present for their interrogation. The Obama administration’s policy says that law enforcement may deny these rights if they deem the situation “exceptional,” even if it doesn’t pertain to any immediate threat.

While Calabrese did not address the issue of Obama’s Miranda policy, the ACLU at-large did issue a statement yesterday, condemning the administration.

“It is important to remember that no change in FBI interrogation policy can alter the constitutional imperative that information gained without Miranda warnings is inadmissible against a defendant in a court of law where no public safety exception exists,” they said. “This principle is fundamental to the American system of justice.”

But what about these lists? And specifically, the “Individuals of Special Concern,” which is now only likely to grow in importance as a database containing some individuals who the president potentially considers to be unprotected by the U.S. Constitution.

“The biggest problem with the terrorist database is not having a separate database of people,” Calabrese said. “There may be situations where you have high value targets, you know, you want to make sure you can immediately get a ping-back on. The problem is how people get on those lists. Have they been connected to a crime? Is there an arrest warrant out for them? In situations like that, obviously it’s fine. We want the police to be able to find dangerous people. Once there’s a warrant out for a person’s arrest, obviously we want to give law enforcement the tools they need to capture those people.”

Unfortunately, he added, that’s not a reflection of today’s U.S. law enforcement.

“What we have instead is secret watch lists, where people don’t know they’re on the list, they don’t know the standard for putting them on the lists and there’s no way to get off the lists,” Calabrese said. “That’s a serious problem.”

“We’re not opposed to technology, but we are seeing technology advancing rapidly and often times legal protections aren’t keeping up. When it’s now technologically possible to do things like capture a facial recognition image and use the various cameras across a city to track somebody using that image automatically … When that’s technologically possible, the only barrier between us and widespread mass surveillance is legal protections. They don’t exist right now, in many cases.”

Image: Attorney Chris Calabrese. Courtesy photo via the ACLU.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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