The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is quietly upgrading its biometrics database to include the fingerprints and photographs of millions of individuals never suspected, let alone convicted, of committing a crime, according to reports from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The civil-liberties group, citing an FBI Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) from February, finds that the agency now plans to retain indefinitely in its database fingerprints and other biographical information — soon to include photos — submitted as part of routine criminal background checks. These will be merged with data on criminals and criminal suspects. Then, whenever a law-enforcement agency searches the database — EFF says this happens “thousands of times a day” — the fingerprints and other personal data of millions of innocent people will be included in the query.
According to EFF,
This is the first time the FBI has allowed routine criminal searches of its civil fingerprint data. Although employers and certifying agencies have submitted prints to the FBI for decades, the FBI says it rarely retained these non-criminal prints. And even when it did retain prints in the past, they “were not readily accessible or searchable.” Now, not only will these prints — and the biographical data included with them — be available to any law enforcement agent who wants to look for them, they will be searched as a matter of course along with all prints collected for a clearly criminal purpose (like upon arrest or at time of booking).
A significant number of Americans will be affected by this change. Many private employers conduct background checks on prospective employees, although these checks don’t always include fingerprints. Individuals desiring employment in law enforcement usually have to submit to fingerprint checks. Some states require members of various private-sector professions, including child-care workers, engineers, architects, doctors, and attorneys, to undergo fingerprint checks. And all federal employees, from student interns to food-service workers, must undergo the same type of screening.