In The Simpsons movie, Marge, Bart and Lisa's conversations are tracked by the NSA. It's not that they've been targeted as specific threats to the EPA's plans to wipe Springfield off the map but because the NSA listens to every American's conversation.
That scenario -- which an ACLU officer calls the Always On Surveillance Society -- looks increasingly unridiculous. The latest data point: a Washington Post report that the FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build a massive biometric database.
Digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns are already flowing into FBI systems in a climate-controlled, secure basement [in Clarksburg, WV]. Next month, the FBI intends to award a 10-year contract that would significantly expand the amount and kinds of biometric information it receives. And in the coming years, law enforcement authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns, face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.
And this is hardly the only such effort within the federal government. The Pentagon has a digital database of 1.5 million Iraqi and Afghani detainees, including fingerprints, iris scans and faces, as well as a DNA database of some Iraqi detainees.
The Dept. of Homeland Security has millions of fingerprints from travelers stopped at airports for criminal violations, U.S. citizens adopting children overseas, and from visa applicants abroad. And people who sign up for a DHS program get their iris scans stored in another database; once cleared, these folks supposedly can bypass the usual security routine.
In an underground facility the size of two football fields, a request reaches an FBI server every second from somewhere in the United States or Canada, comparing a set of digital fingerprints against the FBI's database of 55 million sets of electronic fingerprints. A possible match is made -- or ruled out--as many as 100,000 times a day. Soon, the server at CJIS headquarters will also compare palm prints and, eventually, iris images and face-shape data such as the shape of an earlobe. If all goes as planned, a police officer making a traffic stop or a border agent at an airport could run a 10-fingerprint check on a suspect and within seconds know if the person is on a database of the most wanted criminals and terrorists. An analyst could take palm prints lifted from a crime scene and run them against the expanded database. Intelligence agents could exchange biometric information worldwide.
The FBI terms its project The Next Generation and a key aspect is to bring together the disparate digital databases. TNG will communicate with the Terrorist Screening Center and the National Crime Information Center, the FBI's master criminal database. In addition, they plan to store private sector employees' prints and alert employers when workers are charged with crimes.
At the West Virginia University Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR), biometric researchers will soon be working for the FBI on state-of-the-art iris and facial recognition technology. CITeR director Lawrence A. Hornak said "the long-term goal" is "ubiquitous use" of biometrics.
A traveler may walk down an airport corridor and allow his face and iris images to be captured without ever stepping up to a kiosk and looking into a camera, he said.
"That's the key," he said. "You've chosen it. You have chosen to say, 'Yeah, I want this place to recognize me.' "