An FBI database with fingerprints and facial photos of 16.9 million people disproportionately includes Asian Americans and should be covered by provisions of the federal Privacy Act, Asian-American advocacy groups said Wednesday.
The FBI in May moved to exempt its Next Generation Identification system from the Privacy Act, arguing that revealing who is in its database could jeopardize ongoing law enforcement efforts and national security. The proposed rule change would, however, permit the FBI at its discretion to share information when doing so does not hinder the bureau from prosecuting crimes or protecting national security.
While more than 80 percent of photos in the system are criminal, according to a Government Accountability Office report, advocacy groups still worry that Asian-American immigrants, such as those who've applied for permanent residence or citizenship and have information stored in the database, could be vulnerable to civil rights violations.
"The most marginalized members of our communities — non-citizens, Muslim Americans, LGBTQ Asian Americans — are most impacted by the FBI's biometrics system," Mark Tseng Putterman, media justice campaigner for 18 Million Rising (18MR), one of 11 Asian-American groups that Wednesday sent a joint letter to the Justice Department, said in a statement. "We need to be concerned about this issue and speak out for the millions it will impact."
An FBI spokesperson referred comment on the letter Wednesday to the Justice Department, which did not immediately respond to NBC News.
In 2010, the FBI began replacing its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System with Next Generation Identification, which permits searches based not only on fingerprints but also on facial recognition. According to the GAO report, local, state and federal agencies can voluntarily submit two types of photos to the database: those taken after an arrest, lawful detention, or incarceration, and those submitted for licensing, employment, security clearance, military or volunteer service, and immigration benefits.
Local, state, and federal law enforcement can receive access to the FBI's system to conduct face-recognition searches, which are restricted to criminal photos and are for law enforcement purposes only, the GAO report said. Sixteen states participate in the FBI's Next Generation Identification, providing storehouses of driver's license photos that can also be combed through, according to the report.
Late last month, dozens of civil rights groups, including 18MR and other Asian-American organizations, wrote to members of the Senate and House judiciary committees and House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, asking for a congressional hearing on the proposed rule change to the Privacy Act. The groups say collecting biometric data raises privacy and civil liberties concerns. The status of their hearing request was not immediately clear.
More recently, the July 6 letter to the Justice Department, also signed by 18MR, expresses concerns over what it calls an over-enrollment of immigrants in the FBI database and "potential inaccuracies in facial recognition technology and bias in its implementation." Among those joining the letter were Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Chinese Progressive Association — San Francisco, and South Asian Americans Leading Together.
"The Privacy Act was enacted to ensure that individuals have the right to know the records the government keeps about their activities," the letter reads. "The FBI's exemption request would render [Next Generation Identification] effectively secret, denying Americans the right to know what information the FBI is storing on them and the ability to correct inaccurate information."
Released to the public in June, the GAO report made six recommendations to the Justice Department and FBI about its face-recognition technology. Among them, the FBI should audit database users and biometric specialists to ensure face-image searches adhere to agency policy, and it should also annually assess the accuracy of facial-recognition searches to see if they meet federal, state, and local law enforcement needs.
The Justice Department agreed with both recommendations, though it disagreed with others, including one saying the FBI should take steps to determine if face-recognition systems maintained by outside agencies that the FBI uses are sufficiently accurate, according to the GAO report.
To support active investigations, the FBI is permitted access to databases administered by the Defense and State departments, which keep photos of individuals detained abroad and from visa applications. Responding to the GAO recommendation, the Justice Department said it has no authority to enforce its standards on other agencies, according to the report.
The public comment period for the proposed rule change originally ended in June, but was extended by a month until Wednesday.