The FBI Wants a Tattoo Surveillance Algorithm to Identify and Classify You


Tattoos can carry a stigma: Even in 2016, you still have to cover up your ink on a job interview. But it's not employers you'll need to worry about in the future, it's the feds.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology is working with the FBI to create an algorithm that would automatically scan and recognize tattoos in online photos and databases across the internet, according to an investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And, they've working on the project since 2014.

One of the first iterations of the project was called Tatt-C, a hackathon-type symposium that invited private corporations and academic institutions to build the tools NIST needs to identify and sort tattoos, with some projects attaining over 94% accuracy.

Running their algorithm across a database of over 15,000 FBI prisoners, the Tatt-C participants ran a series of tests that don't just automatically identify people based off of tattoos, but senses what photos have tattoos in them, and group people together based on tattoo similarities and compare tattoos to other symbols in the media.

Tatt-C was hosted by the FBI's Biometric Center for Excellence, which is building a massive database of biometric information, including faces, fingerprints and iris scans.

John MacDougall/Getty Images

Tattoo recognition technology could be a powerful surveillance tool for tracking legitimate criminal affiliations. A four leaf clover could indicate membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, while a five or a three-point crown could symbolize membership in the Latin Kings. But while putting a giant cross on your chest could mean you're a high-ranking member of the Russian mafia, it might also mean you're just a Christian.

The EFF warned in its report that tattoos, which are protected by the First Amendment as a form of free speech, could be used to unfairly group and classify people based on religious and political affiliation and expression. Naturally, the NIST doesn't intend for any of this to be alarming.

"The government doesn't have plans to collect everyone who has a tattoo," NIST computer scientist Mai Ngan told Business Insider. "We don't want to judge, just because you have a tattoo doesn't mean you are a criminal." 


The next phase for the NIST is a project called Tatt-E, which will develop programs this summer that will "cluster" people into groups and track tattoos on a single subject over time. 

The EFF wrote that the project is so flawed with privacy violations, low standards and sinister surveillance implications, that the only solution is for the government "to suspend the project immediately."