According to a new report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FBI has been working with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to create software that would recognize tattoos that signify an affiliation to a religious group, gang, or political ideology. According to the EEF, the software would use an existing database of 15,000 tattoo images taken of inmates and arrestees to automatically identify and profile others with similar designs. The initiative is one that the EFF investigators claim "threatens free speech and privacy."
However, the NIST disputes several points in the EFF report. In an email statement to mental_floss, the agency said, “Neither NIST nor the FBI are creating any software,” adding that it was “being developed by industry and academia.”
The EFF reports that existing algorithms are able to identify tattoos with "greater than 90 percent accuracy," but the programs are not yet able to match individuals with the designs. The foundation also says that NIST and the FBI have plans to improve the system by enhancing the database to 100,000 images with the help of law enforcement departments in Tennessee, Michigan, and Florida.
According to NIST, its project uses the database to “fairly and reproducibly assess which algorithms from companies and research groups produce the highest-quality matches. The goal of the NIST project is to help ensure tattoo matching technologies are evaluated using sound science to improve accuracy and minimize mismatches.”
The EEF obtained information from a NIST workshop presentation in which the organization said that tattoos "contain intelligence; messages, meaning, and motivation." The language in the presentation also originally mentioned the connections that could be made between tattoos and "gangs, sub-cultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology." References to religion and political ideologies were removed from public documents after the EFF voiced its concerns.
NIST said in its response—which you can read in full here—that the recognition software is “not capable of attaching symbolism or meaning to the images, it matches images to other images based on pixel content.”
In obtaining inmate photos for research purposes, the EFF says that members of NIST did not check with their superiors on the ethics of the project until after it was completed, and adds that some of the photos contain personal information about the prisoners and thus should not be used.
NIST refutes this claim, telling mental_floss that “NIST’s work on this project does not involve the use of human subjects as defined by federal regulations. The database contains images only, with no accompanying information on the individuals whose tattoos were photographed."
The project, the statement says, "is about measuring the effectiveness of algorithms for accurately matching digital images. The NIST project is not about the many complex law enforcement policies or approaches that may be related to images of tattoos.”
Nevertheless, the EFF is calling for the suspension of the FBI and NIST’s use of the tattoo recognition software until its concerns are addressed; NIST noted in its statement that it is "reviewing the EFF report and will carefully consider their concerns."
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect a statement from NIST.