"A NEW facial recognition program being introduced by the FBI could represent a huge improvement in identifying criminals, but privacy advocates say the $US1 billion ($A962.88 million) scheme could also constitute a massive privacy breach.
The simmering controversy boiled up this week in the aftermath of a New Scientist article reporting on the rollout of the system, dubbed Next Generation Identification. It also envisages using iris scans, DNA analysis and voice identification in a nationwide apparatus that will be fully operational by 2014.
The face recognition aspect of the system is especially controversial since it aims to do far more than simply match photos to existing mug shots.
The program is being described in the tech press as a far more sophisticated version of the kind of tagging software employed by Facebook that automatically identifies the people in photographs.
But instead of trawling through heaps of holiday snaps and party photos, the FBI's system would be tightly integrated into the growing international network of surveillance cameras. It would use a highly accurate algorithm that can automatically compare the images to mugshots already in the FBI's database and automatically send out alerts if a wanted person shows up.
Privacy advocates fear that the system will also scour the billions of state-issued driving licences, corporate ID cards and even pictures posted on social networks in order to search for individuals.
According to the New Scientist, the FBI's system is already integrated with driving authorities in 27 states. Given the sophistication and networking of modern surveillance cameras the system could be used to find people in crowds, track persons of interest and conduct automatic surveillance.
"The combination of face recognition, social networks data and data mining can significantly undermine our current notions and expectations of privacy and anonymity," Carnegie Mellon University professor Alessandro Acquisti told a congressional subcommittee in July.
In a blog posting the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that the "FBI wants to be able to search and identify people in photos of crowds and in pictures posted on social media sites - even if the people in those photos haven't been arrested for or even suspected of a crime"."