An FBI program to collect iris scans and create a searchable database demonstrates how local law enforcement enables the federal surveillance state.

According to documents uncovered by The Verge, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has collected at least 200,000 iris scans and submitted them to the FBI over the last two and a half years. In the early months of 2016, the department was reportedly collecting over 189 iris scan every single day.

According to The Verge, the FBI program launched in 2013. In less than three years, the Bureau has collected iris scans from 434,000 arrestees.

“To create that pool of scans, the FBI has struck information-sharing agreements with other agencies, including US Border Patrol, the Pentagon, and local law enforcement departments. California has been most aggressive about collecting scans, but agencies in Texas and Missouri can also add to and search the system. The result amounts to a new national biometric database that stretches the traditional boundaries of a pilot program, while staying just outside the reach of privacy mandates often required for such data-gathering projects.”

ACLU of California Technology and Civil Liberties Policy director Nicole Ozer said the FBI put the iris scan pilot project in place under a shroud of secrecy, much like similar programs involving facial recognition and cell cite simulators. Law enforcement agencies in California have also reportedly participated in these other federal surveillance projects.

“The fact these systems have gone forward without any public debate or oversight that we’ve been able to find is very troubling,” she said.

The state of California was a major player in the FBI’s efforts to beef up its iris scan database from the beginning. A document dated February 2016 reported more than a quarter of a million “enrollments” in the database from the California Department of Justice. The California DOJ sends the scans to the FBI. It receives the data from three counties: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

“Those counties obtain the scans through a variety of sources, usually jails and detentions centers. The California Justice Department, like other agencies the FBI has partnered with, can log a scan as part of the booking process, even for low-level crimes, and well before a conviction. When the scans are sent to the national database, the FBI says, they are bundled with fingerprints and mug shots.”

The Verge pieced together the genesis of the program in California based on documents it obtained.

“A 2013 memo signed by representatives from the FBI and California Department of Justice summarizes responsibilities. At that time, according to the memo, the FBI had more than 30,000 images but did not have a way to search through them. Working with a handful of local and national partners, the FBI planned to test the feasibility of a searchable database, one that would steadily grow as iris data was submitted by law enforcement around the country. The length of the California program was to be kept at one year, and reassessed after, but the documents show the partnership has been renewed every year since.”

The evolution of the FBI iris scan program reveals an important aspect of the federal surveillance state – it depends heavily on cooperation from state and local law enforcement. With its “partners” the FBI went to a non-searchable pool of 30,000 images to a database with hundreds of thousands of iris scans in less than three years. The FBI simply wouldn’t have been able to put this program in place without the willing cooperation of state and local agencies.

This explains why the federal government spends billions of dollars equipping local police with high-tech spy gear. The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies know they can tap into the information gathered by state and local police to create huge databases with information on millions of Americans, many arrested for minor offenses – – some never even charged with a crime.

The feds’ reliance on state and local cooperation reveals an Achilles heel we can use to undermine the ever-growing surveillance state. By working at the state and local level to limit this kind of cooperation, we can make it virtually impossible for the federal government to continue to implement these massive spy programs.

For instance, an ordinance recently passed by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors sets the stage to limit the acquisition and use of spy gear by law enforcement and other county agencies. By limiting local law enforcement access to this kind of gear, or at least placing operators under strict oversight and requiring robust privacy protections, local and state governments can limit the information flowing into massive federal databases.

The bottom line is state and local action actually has a far greater impact than most people imagine. We don’t have to wait for Congress to protect our privacy. (It won’t) We don’t have to hope federal judges step in to save the day. (They won’t.) We can work in our own communities and undermine Big Brother in Washington D.C.

Mike Maharrey

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