FBI Working on 'Tattoo Recognition' Software to Identify Inked Criminals

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We’ve probably all seen episodes of Law & Order and CSI, so we know that law enforcement agencies often rely on facial recognition software to identify suspects in criminal investigations. But there’s been a rumor going around that the FBI may be working on “tattoo recognition” software that could identify criminals by their ink. Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of ethical arguments against the idea of a tattoo recognition program, by people who contend that this type of software would encourage the government to identify and profile people based on their tattoos.

According to an investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has been working on a program to “promote and refine automated tattoo recognition technology” for the FBI since 2014. Designed to use automated computer algorithms to sort out an individual’s personal beliefs, religious affiliations and social connections, the program has, since its inception, compiled a database of 15,000 examples of tattoos from individuals who have been arrested and put in prison, and will likely amass a collection of more than 100,000 tattoo images when all is said and done.

It is expected that this so-called tattoo recognition software will work in much the same way as facial recognition, which matches key characteristics to criminal records, although the EFF claim that “the experiments facilitated by NIST also focused on improving technology that can map connections between people with similarly themed tattoos or make inferences about people from their tattoos,” including references to religion, political ideology or criminal gangs.

Reports of a possible tattoo recognition program in the hands of the FBI has spurred a heated debate about privacy, the staggering reach of modern technology, and the right of an individual to get any tattoo he or she likes without fear of being scrutinized by the authorities. According to critics of the tattoo recognition program, this new software would go hand in hand with mass surveillance, a strategy used by police at last year’s Download Festival in the UK, to scan the faces of more than 90,000 attendees so they could check them against a list of wanted criminals.

The FBI’s potential new “tattoo recognition” software only goes to show you how mainstream tattoos have become, to the point where the government may be able to identify criminals by their tattoos, find possible accomplices based on the similarities in their ink, and even make inferences about suspects’ religious beliefs, political ties and any sort of gang associations. Kind of makes you rethink getting that prominent tattoo on your face, right?

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