Stop the Government’s Tattoo Recognition Experiments

Government researchers and the FBI are trying to crack the codes in our tattoos. They’re developing tattoo recognition technology with the aim of using our ink to reveal who we are, what we believe, and who we’re connected to. These experiments exploit prisoners without proper oversight and with little regard for privacy, civil liberties, or human dignity.

The good news is we may have time to stop it.

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To: Subject: Suspend the Tattoo Recognition Technology Program To Whom It May Concern, I am writing today to call upon the National Institute of Standards and Technology to immediately suspend its “Tattoo Recognition Technology” research. Tattoos are speech: they express who we are and what we believe. NIST’s research with the FBI threatens our rights to free expression, religious freedom, and the right to associate. In addition, the way that this research is being conducted exposes private data and exploits prisoners without ethical oversight. NIST must take the following actions: 1) NIST should suspend the tattoo recognition program immediately and conduct an investigation into whether the research is ethical and respects free speech and privacy of the subjects. The program should not continue without approval and oversight from an Institutional Review Board. 2) NIST must require companies who received tattoo datasets to immediately return the data and destroy any copies in their possession. 3) NIST must ensure that any further research excludes tattoos that contain religious or political symbols or personal data. Experiments must not be conducted to link people by their tattoos. 4) Any additional data shared with third parties must be protected by strict privacy safeguards, including restrictions on who may access the data, secure data storage requirements, and a specified retention period, after which third party researchers must purge the data. NIST researchers have an ethical duty, as well as a duty to the taxpayers who fund them, to conduct research that respects dignity, civil liberties, and privacy. The Tattoo Recognition Technology program fails on all counts and should not move forward.

Imagine that you’ve been arrested or sentenced to prison, and law enforcement officers made you lift your shirt, roll up your sleeves, and pull up your pant legs to take photos of your tattoos. You’d be outraged to learn that those images were not only shared with scientific researchers without your consent, but handed out to a large number of third parties—including private companies—and possibly published online.

That’s the type of research the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the FBI are conducting with thousands of prisoner tattoos as part of a “Tattoo Recognition Technology” program.

In 2014, NIST and the FBI launched the program to improve algorithms that law enforcement can use to learn as much as possible about your identity, personal beliefs, and interests based on your tattoos. Ultimately, this technology could allow police to use mobile devices that instantly analyze our tattoos and understand what they mean. It could even link you to people with similar tattoos.

This research is irresponsible and is a serious threat to our privacy and First Amendment rights. Researchers experimented with tattoos that contained religious imagery and personal information, without thinking through the ethical and constitutional issues at stake. Not only that, NIST researchers failed to provide safeguards for the prisoners subject to the research, despite ethical rules requiring greater oversight.

This summer NIST plans to launch the next stage of the research. The good news is there’s still time to stop it. Email NIST today to demand accountability.

For more information:
Why EFF is calling for NIST to suspend its tattoo recognition research.

Five ways law enforcement wants to use tattoo recognition based on the NIST experiments.