EFF: FBI & NIST's tattoo recognition program exploited prisoners, profiled based on religion, gave sensitive info to private contractors

Dave Maass from EFF says, "Right now, NIST researchers are working with the FBI to develop tattoo recognition technology that police can use to learn as much as possible about people through their tattoos. But an EFF investigation has 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. And so far, researchers have avoided ethical oversight while doing it."

"NIST's research involved profiling people based on their religious tattoos, exploited prisoners, and handed private data to third parties. And they did all that without going through the proper review process"

When government scientists perform experiments involving people, they are supposed to adhere to the Common Rule, a series of federal regulations and principles for ethical research.

The Common Rule was developed in response to historically troubling scientific research on humans, such as U.S. experiments with syphilis on African-American men in the South. Its purpose is to provide independent oversight of any research conducted on humans. The rule also imposes heightened scrutiny on research involving vulnerable populations, such as prisoners. Today, the Common Rule has been adopted by more than 15 federal agencies, including NIST.

Whenever research involves prisoners, the Common Rule has a special, independent section that limits the types of experiments than can be conducted and requires rigorous oversight by an Independent Review Board (IRB). That oversight body must include at least one inmate or their representative. The goal is to protect prisoners and detainees from being coerced into becoming research subjects merely because they are incarcerated.

NIST’s first tattoo recognition experiment, Tatt-C did not go through this process in advance of conducting the research, despite the fact that the images were collected from inmates.

Tattoo Recognition Research Threatens Free Speech and Privacy

[Dave Maass and Aaron Mackey/EFF]