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FBI Awards Contract for Biometric Database; Some Skeptical Over Privacy Issues

By Rita Zeidner  2/25/2008
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The Federal Bureau of Investigation awarded a $1 billion, 10-year contract on Feb. 12 to Lockheed Martin to build the world’s largest computer database of people’s physical characteristics.

Among its numerous features, the so-called next-generation biometrics-based system is intended to notify certain employers if their workers are arrested or charged with a crime.

In addition to providing enhanced fingerprint storage and reading capacity, officials hope the system will allow them to compare such traits as palm prints, scars and tattoos, iris patterns within the eyes and facial shapes. The idea is to combine various pieces of biometric information to positively identify a suspect.

Just how employers will leverage the system remains to be seen—particularly since it is designed for law enforcement, rather than employment use. Currently only a small fraction of organizations have legal authority to tap into the FBI’s database for employment screening purposes, according to attorney Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources, a Novato, Calif., background screening firm. Those mostly include organizations with workers dealing with children, the elderly or defense contractors.

In addition, the planned “rap back” system that would notify employers when their workers are arrested or charged with a crime opens up a can of worms. Employers in many states are limited in how they can use arrest and other data about a worker’s off-duty conduct.

“Too much information is not always a good thing,” Rosen said.

In addition, he questioned whether it would be possible to standardize digitized criminal background information from more than 3,000 counties throughout the country under a single database.

“It’s a huge crazy quilt of data,” he said.

The scope of the planned database is alarming privacy advocates who fear some individuals could be harmed irreparably if erroneous information is unwittingly entered into the database or old and obsolete information is not expunged.

“Employers and everyone, including law enforcement officials, need to be very wary about this type of data and how it is used,” said Melissa Ngo, senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Identification and Surveillance Project.

Ngo said she also questioned the efficacy of the FBI’s growing reliance on biometric data, since fingerprints and other data the warehouse would store changes over time.

Rita Zeidner is manager of the SHRM Online HR Technology Focus Area.

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