FBI rolling out high-tech 'Big Brother' monitoring system

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

Thanks to the FBI, the United States government will soon have a nationwide system in place capable of monitoring and identifying “persons of interest” virtually anywhere. The Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is designed to aid the FBI in tracking down and capturing criminals.

Fingerprints have been the primary unique identifier for law enforcement agencies of all levels for a century. Even with billions of samples on record, no two fingerprints have ever been found to be alike.

Fingerprints are just one unique identifier, though, and much of the accumulated fingerprint data is not merged and easily accessible. NGI will include voice recognition, iris and retina scan data, facial recognition, DNA analysis, and more in an automated system designed to help law enforcement identify and capture suspects more efficiently and effectively.

NGI is designed to integrate with surveillance camera systems across the country. An algorithm will be used to automatically scan surveillance video and compare faces to criminal mugshots to alert authorities when wanted suspects are identified. The FBI database will also have the ability to identify unique scars or tattoos on potential suspects.

Many computers and consumer electronic devices rely on biometric features to identify and authenticate users. Some desktop and laptop computers include fingerprint scanners that can be used in place of a password, or in conjunction with a password, for stronger, two-factor authentication. There is some speculation that Apple may include fingerprint security for its iOS devices, and Android mobile devices have an option to use facial recognition to unlock access.

For privacy advocates, though, there’s a huge difference between using your own biometric features as a security measure to protect your computers and mobile devices, and “Big Brother” rolling out a nationwide system to automate the capability to spy on the entire population. Privacy advocates are concerned about the possible abuse of the system, or the prospect that unauthorized users might be able to hack the system and gain access to sensitive data.

Earlier this year Facebook came under fire from both privacy advocates and the United States Senate over its implementation of facial recognition technology. The Facebook system is designed to recognize individuals to offer up suggestions for tagging photos—ostensibly to entice people to engage more on the social network.

At senate hearings investigating Facebook’s use of facial recognition technology, the FBI offered its own perspective on the risks and value of facial recognition. Senator Al Franken, however, expressed concerns that such a system could be abused by law enforcement or government agencies to identify protesters or participants of political rallies.

A system like NGI is a double-edged sword. Most people would agree that a system that helps law enforcement locate and identify suspects and known criminals more efficiently is a good thing. However, the law abiding citizens of the United States are generally opposed to having the government monitor their every move.

The trick is finding a balance that helps the FBI or other agencies use technology to work more effectively, without infringing on the privacy or Constitutional rights of average citizens at the same time.