The FBI shouldn’t restrict the public’s right to know about our data

(Photo credit: nolifebeforecoffee/Flickr)

As The Washington Post reported this week, the FBI wants to exempt its growing database of fingerprints and photographs from Privacy Act rules. The Privacy Act of 1974, which was enacted as a way to ensure that federal agencies protected the expanding amount of private information that federal agencies held about the American people from inadvertent exposure, includes provisions that require agencies to tell individuals if their information is in a system and empower citizens to ensure that that information is correct.

The latter two provisions are what the FBI wishes to create an exception for in its Next Generation Identification program, which has more than 100 million fingerprints collected from convicted criminals and suspects and more than 45 million photographs of faces from mug shots, visa applications and hiring processes.

This is an extraordinary, centralized trove of data, and one with immense potential for lawful use and abuse — particularly in an era where predictive analytics are increasingly used to crunch data to target enforcement and regulatory decisions. Unfortunately, the U.S. government failed to publicize the proposed change to the FBI’s implementation of the Privacy Act beyond the legally mandated publication in the Federal Register, nor did it provide an extended opportunity for the public to comment on such an important proposal.

As a result, the Sunlight Foundation joined 45 groups urging the Justice Department to give the public more comment time on the Privacy Act exclusion. (You can read the letter below.) Sunlight’s allies in this effort have written extensively about why shielding this massive biometric database from public scrutiny poses serious concerns about privacy and civil liberties, including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

In response to our efforts, we are heartened to find that the Justice Department extended public comment on the FBI’s Privacy Act proposal by an addition 30 days. We encourage you to consider those arguments carefully, then weigh in online using, the Federal Register or by writing to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Office at