NSA fear raises concerns over DHS facial recognition technology

Without civil rights protection built in, DHS may not be able to avoid the privacy violations of the NSA, advocates say

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The U.S. government's effort to develop video surveillance technology capable of spotting fugitives or suspected terrorists needs to be wrapped in a privacy framework that prevents the data-gathering blunders of the National Security Agency, civil rights advocates say.

The system that combines computers, video cameras and facial recognition software was tested last year in a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS), The New York Times reports. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) test found that BOSS was too slow and unreliable, and several years of work is likely needed.

Despite not being ready for prime time, BOSS worries privacy advocates because the related DHS documents given to The Times by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) do not address protecting the privacy of innocent Americans.

"We didn't see any mention of privacy protection at all," Julia Horwitz, open government coordinator for EPIC, told CSOonline on Thursday.

Unless the technology is built with civil rights protection as a specification, then the government may not avoid the privacy violations of the NSA, privacy advocates argue.

A secret court opinion declassified Wednesday by the Obama administration found that the spy agency's massive collection of Internet data had violated the Constitution for several years

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"Strong individual data protections and privacy protections don't have to be in opposition to progress [in technology]," Horwitz said. "They can blend."

A lot is not known about the technology that would be used in BOSS. One area of concern for advocates is the database underlying the system. The surveillance cameras would scan crowds for faces matching the stored images of people on a watch-list.

However, EPIC is not convinced that the database would be limited to a specific list of people. "Based on the documents that we received, that's an educated guess or a speculation and not a certainty that's what DHS intends to do," Horwitz said.

Debate on civil rights protections in the NSA's search for terrorists has been hampered by the national security mission of the agency, which classifies all its work as top secret. At least three major lawsuits, including one by EPIC, have been filed against the NSA, arguing some details of its surveillance program are kept secret needlessly.

"I would hope that in any system that DHS is setting up that they will have greater transparency about how the system operates," said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has a lawsuit pending against the NSA for withholding information

Public disclosure of BOSS' capabilities and its collection and handling of stored data is important for Congress and Americans to have now, so privacy safeguards can be established before the fast-developing technology is used, experts say.

Jody Westby, chairwoman for the American Bar Association's Privacy and Computer Crime Committee, said,"It's the legal framework that's lagging behind." 

The Federal Trade Commission's Fair Information Practice Principles could serve as a starting point for BOSS. While the guidelines are meant to protect consumer information from being abused by companies, there are several items that could serve a broader purpose, critics say.

Examples include giving people the right to access images and other information kept on them, so they can argue for its removal if they are innocent of any wrongdoing. In addition, data no longer useful should be purged, and mechanisms for guaranteeing accuracy should be in place, privacy advocates say.

Finally, an oversight body with authority over the use of the system should be in place to ensure established rules and restrictions are followed.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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