EFF argues Tattoo Recognition Research Threatens Free Speech, Privacy

EFF said that law enforcement efforts to develop tattoo identification technology is exploiting prisoners and violating civil liberties.
EFF said that law enforcement efforts to develop tattoo identification technology is exploiting prisoners and violating civil liberties.

In-brief: efforts by law enforcement to use technology to automate identification of individuals based on their tattoos are violating the civil liberties of prisoners and threaten free speech and privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued.

Efforts by law enforcement to use technology to automate identification of individuals based on their tattoos are violating the civil liberties of prisoners and threaten free speech and privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued in a blog post last week.

Efforts to “crack the symbolism of our tattoos using automated computer algorithms” threatens civil liberties, EFF staffers Dave Maass and Aaron Mackey in a blog post last week.

“Tattoos are inked on our skin, but they often hold much deeper meaning. They may reveal who we are, our passions, ideologies, religious beliefs, and even our social relationships…That’s exactly why law enforcement wants to crack the symbolism of our tattoos using automated computer algorithms, an effort that threatens our civil liberties.”

As this blog reported back in 2015, the National Institute of Standards and Technology held a workshop that explored approaches to automatic tattoo identification using artificial intelligence.

Participating organizations in that workshop used a FBI -supplied dataset of thousands of images of tattoos from government databases. Challenges included developing methods for identifying a tattoo in an image, identifying visually similar or related tattoos from different subjects; identifying the same tattoo image from the same subject over time; identifying a small region of interest that is contained in a larger image; and identifying a tattoo from a visually similar image like a sketch or scanned print.

According to NIST computer scientist Mei Ngan, “state-of-the-art algorithms fared quite well in detecting tattoos, finding different instances of the same tattoo from the same subject over time, and finding a small part of a tattoo within a larger tattoo.”

EFF said an investigation it conducted found that these experiments “exploit inmates, with little regard for the research’s implications for privacy, free expression, religious freedom, and the right to associate.”

So far, EFF said “researchers have avoided ethical oversight while doing it.”

The organization argues that the government should suspend the project immediately. Failing that, scientists should “stop using any tattoo images obtained coercively from prison and jail inmates and tattoos that contain personal information or religious or political symbolism.”

Read more: Tattoo Recognition Research Threatens Free Speech and Privacy | Electronic Frontier Foundation

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