The FBI is Making An AI to Track and Sort People By Their Tattoos

Can tracking and sorting people by their tattoos hinder the freedom of expression?

6. 8. 16 by Adeel Shaffi
Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) teamed-up with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create a unique piece of technology capable of recognizing tattoos. Since 2014, the tandem has already been able to compile a database of 15,000 tattoos, giving them the foundation for developing recognition algorithms.

Researchers from the Imaging wing of the NIST developed the idea of tracking tattoos for four reasons. First, one out of every five adults in the US has a tattoo. Second, tattoos provide distinguishing marks that serve as a form of identification. Third, tattoos suggest affiliations to gangs, cultures, beliefs, or ideologies. Last, tattoos can denote certain messages, meanings, and motivations.  

This raised some red flags for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), as tattoo recognition technology may implicate rights such as free expression, religious freedom, as well as the right to associate.

In addition, this research is causing privacy concerns. The images of tattoos were obtained from arrestees and inmates, and were handed over to third parties, with little restriction on how the images may be used. Many of the images reviewed by EFF contained personally identifying information, including people’s names, faces, and birth dates.


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