Police look to biometrics to automate criminal tattoo identification

Arrest records have always made note of the tattoos on a criminal’s body, but law enforcement officials are now looking to automate the process through biometrics, in hopes of identifying suspects more quickly — drawing alarm among privacy and free speech advocates.

Tattoos are a common rite of passage for gang members, and police frequently keep databases of tattoos. While the process was manual before, police believe that by now automatically identifying those tattoos, they could more quickly find potential threats.

Of course, simply having a tattoo is not a crime, and as with any automated system, there’s also the potential for mix-ups and false identification. That’s why privacy advocates cited by Reason oppose automated tattoo identification, believing it will lead to wrongful accusations and arrests targeting innocent people.

Tattoo recognition through biometrics has been pioneered by the National Institute of Standard and Technology, which solicited help from private companies and universities in building a system that would match tattoos.

The NIST’s Tattoo Recognition Technology Challenge, or “Tatt-C,” resulted in the first publicly available open tattoo database for developing tattoo recognition research.

But digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation investigated the NIST initiative, and found that it made efforts to make inferences about people from their tattoos, including political ideology or religious beliefs. The EFF said that the program should cause concern for free speech and religious freedom advocates, calling tattoos “unique biometric identifiers.”

The “Tatt-C” initiative included some 15,000 photos of inmate tattoos, some of which included personally identifying information, including names, faces and birth dates. The database was handed over to private companies, and the EFF says that “little restriction” was placed on how the images could be used or shared.

Finally, the EFF lambasted the NIST for allegedly only asking for permission from supervisors after the first major set of experiments concluded.

In response, the NIST said its project does not meet the criteria for human subjects as research as defined by federal regulations. They argue that their efforts are focused solely on the effectiveness of matching digital images with algorithms.

“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 institute said.