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FBI Developing Tech to Identify and Determine What Your Tattoo Means

The FBI wants to know what your tattoos mean. The federal security agency is trying to identify the meanings of tattoos and how the tattoos “map out people’s relationships and identify their beliefs” as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported.

The EFF, a civil liberties organization, first looked into tattoo recognition technology in 2015 after learning the FBI was gathering tattoo imagery involuntarily from prisoners and coordinating with the National Institute for Standards and Technology to run experiments.

As a response, the EFF submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request where they found tattoo recognition is another biometric the FBI is monitoring. The FBI is reportedly working on an image recognition technology that can identify iconic imagery in tattoos and their associated meanings.

Both the FBI and NIST provided 19 external groups with thousands of images of tattoos collected from prison inmates to enable the recipient groups to develop the image recognition and biometric technology.

EFF reported that both agencies tasked the external recipient groups with using the tattoos to develop a system where people who share common beliefs could be easily identified. Tattoos that have a semblance with religious imageries were particularly focused on.

EFF accused the FBI and NIST of not following requirements that protect prisoners from involuntarily becoming government test subjects. EFF also accused NIST of altering its documents to diminish the flagrant research methods used to obtain the tattoo images from inmates and failing to respond to FOIA requests following the publicity surrounding the issue. Obtained FBI emails, however, show that NIST had not been direct in their gathering data methodology.

While face, iris and fingerprint recognition technology is not new, a system for identifying tattoos and understanding their meanings together with the socio-religious affiliations of the wearer is very new. And it comes with its own problems too – misinterpretation. Humans can misread the meanings of tattoos and images and technologies can too. A religious icon etched on an individual’s body may have various meanings in various settings and locations.

In fact, it is possible for an image linked to Judaism to be equally linked to a street gang. Sometimes, sporting an iconic tattoo does not indicate membership to any group, and there have been cases where gangs force victims to take on their tattoo symbols.

The EFF noted one case where federal officials attempted to deport a Mexican man because he supposedly had a gang-affiliated tattoo. A judge threw out the case after a well-respected gang expert testified he had never seen the tattoo associated with any gang.

Documents obtained by EFF unearthed presentations where the FBI detailed their efforts to identify “gang membership, terrorist relevance, location, [and] symbols description/meaning.”

One presentation by the chief of the FBI’s Cryptanalysis & Racketeering Records Unit was titled, “Tattoo, Graffiti, and Symbol Recognition: A Codebreakers Perspective.” The second slide then read, “We want a one-stop database to tell us what a symbol means.”

The EFF is still waiting for the FBI and NIST to reveal the list of 19 research institutions and companies provided with thousands of body tattoos and iconic images forcefully collected from prison inmates.


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  1. Guess if the left takes over, I’ll be labled a fascist for my gadsden tattoo and other motto tats.

  2. Gail Ladella September 1, 2018

    Really important

  3. Gail Ladella September 1, 2018


  4. Victorya Rouse September 1, 2018

    Undoubtedly related to the Vulcan mind-meld…


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