(CN) – While it sounds like the premise of a dystopian sci-fi film, a digital privacy watchdog says a federal agency is developing a program to scan tattoos in a searchable database which law enforcement can use to track people, identify their religion and political beliefs, and more.
According to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed Thursday in D.C. federal court by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the technology would allow law enforcement to “rapidly scan anyone’s tattoos and make a myriad of assumptions about them, including falsely associating them with criminal activity.”
The group names the Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security departments as defendants, and says the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-regulatory federal agency that is part of the Commerce Department, developed the Tattoo Recognition Technology program.
EFF says the technology is designed to track free speech.
“Tracking tattoos disadvantages them as a form of free speech and also creates freedom of association concerns when people are matched with others for government surveillance and investigative purposes, sometimes incorrectly,” the group says in the lawsuit.
EFF says it has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests with the National Institute of Standards and Technology dating back to April 2016 for records on the program.
The group sought a description of the ethical standard and process used for gathering human subjects for the program’s research, a list of agencies that received the data to participate in the program, correspondence on the program between the institute and the FBI, and presentations on the program.
EFF says the institute received the FOIA request, agreed to waive all fees and to expedite the process of -the request. By May 2016, the institute had sent a 77-page document and said it was still processing the initial request.
In August 2016, the institute said there were five agency records totaling 180 pages and released 144 pages – withholding the rest under FOIA exemptions, according to the lawsuit. The agency continued to identify additional documents and referred them to the FBI, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security.
EFF filed an appeal with the Commerce Department on several of the withheld documents. The group also challenged the institute’s decision to refer responsive records to the other agencies. The Commerce Department confirmed it received the appeal in October 2016, but has not communicated with EFF since.
The watchdog seeks a finding the agencies involved violated FOIA by wrongfully withholding records pertaining to requests made April 8, May 2, and June 22, 2016. The group also seeks a finding the agencies wrongfully denied a request for “news media” treatment and waiver of all processing fees under FOIA.
The institute did not comment on the lawsuit, but a representative did offer a clarification on the program.
“The NIST Tattoo Recognition Technology program seeks to measure the effectiveness of algorithms for accurately matching digital images. Its goal is to help ensure tattoo matching technologies are evaluated using sound science to improve accuracy and minimize mismatches,” the representative said.