July 18, 2012 at 5:55 PM ET
The FBI is requesting information from across the country on collections of tattoos and their affiliations. The data would be added to the Bureau's Biometric Center of Excellence, which currently creates and improves databases of biometric data like fingerprints, DNA and irises.
A "Request for Information" memo has been issued by the FBI, asking for the locations and characteristics of databases of tattoos:
TheBCOE is seeking information from academia, industry, or lawenforcement entities related to any current databases containingtattoo/symbol images, their possible meanings, gang affiliations,terrorist groups or other criminal organizations.
The FBI did not immediately respond to our questions about the scope and intent of the program, but we presume a database could be compiled that would help investigators understand and cross-reference common gang-related body art, or possibly associate it with a specific location or tattoo artist.
The BCOE is publicly working to build "multimodal biometric search capability," and also to build domestic and international relationships in order to achieve its goals. In other words, it's in charge of collecting and organizing what data it can get, and arranging access to others' data.
That tattoos can have associations with gangs is apparent, but it seems that the government is using them as grounds for suspicion: The Wall Street Journal reported this week that some hopeful immigrants had been denied green cards at least partially because of their tattoos.
Sure, body art is probably protected under free speech, but there is also no legal reason why the FBI shouldn't collect and analyze patterns among tattoos and their owners, using information collected legally and ethically. At the moment they are only testing the waters to see where and how the information has been collected, and in what way it could be accessed. But the goal is clearly to include such body art information and its potential implications along with other biometric measures.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBC News. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.