Tattoo-tracking research causes concern

Tattoo-tracking research causes concern

MIDLAND-ODESSA, TX (KWES) - The FBI is working with researchers to develop tattoo-recognition technology.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) did an investigation into the research.

It sparked concerns.

EFF's investigative researcher Dave Maass spent a year looking into the program.

In an interview with Raycom affiliate KLTV, Maass said, "They're developing technology that can not only identify you by your tattoos, but seeks to learn the meaning of tattoos and connect you to people that have similar tattoos. It's a first amendment right, not only to privacy, but also to free speech and association. It allows police to start targeting people based on their political or religious ideology and the groups they are members of."

That concerns one tattoo artist at Familia Tattoo in Odessa.

Joe Vincent Franco is worried people with tattoos will be mislabeled.

He said different tattoos mean different things to different people.

For example, Franco said, "Someone could get a skull because they killed somebody. Some could get a skull because they've accepted death. Maybe someone in their family died. "

Franco is also concerned about young people.

Many walk into the tattoo shop requesting the same tattoos as their idols.

''People get the same tattoos as celebrities get. Some of those are gang affiliated.  Some of them don't even know what it means. It's a fad," said Franco.

Tattoo tracking isn't anything new.

The Midland County Sheriff's Office has been doing it for years.

Sheriff Gary Painter said his deputies have been trained what to look for by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Sheriff Painter said, "When the person comes in, the first thing that they do is strip them down and write down every tattoo that they have. They are the experts on tattoos in the state of Texas. "

The sheriff said gang members use tattoos to identify each other and rival gangs.

Many tattoos are not always noticeable.

"You sit down and look at the tattoos and you have to be able to see what you're looking at. It could be in plain sight and you're looking past it," said Painter.

Sheriff Painter said some gang members will lie about their affiliation, but others will admit it.

He said it is all to avoid getting locked up in an area with a rival gang member.

"You don't want to put somebody in there that's going to be in conflict. You have to watch for that. That's stuff you have to watch for constantly," said Painter.

If someone has a suspicious tattoo, Painter said they always double check it.

"We do that through our investigation, through background, previous history and we make phone call with people that they've had contact with to positively identify if they are or are not with a gang, " said Painter.

For the average person with a love for beautiful tattoo art, Painter said it is unlikely law enforcement will label that person with new tattoo-tracking technology.

"I doubt it, unless they are committing a criminal act. You have a tattoo that has a kid's name or a family member that died or a friend. We're not looking at that. We are looking for something very specific, " said Painter.

Franco is concerned technology has become so advanced, so fast, that tattoo tracking will turn into something more invasive.

"I think it's going to be the same type of mess people are upset over like the NSA and the Patriot Act. Honestly, it's going to screw up a lot of people's lives. A lot of people are going to be judged by something they never even considered doing," said Franco.

The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) is overseeing the FBI's tattoo research program.

The institute released a statement regarding the EFF's report on the program.

It said in part: "The NIST project is about measuring the effectiveness of algorithms for accurately matching digital images. The NIST project is not about the many complex law enforcement policies or approaches that may be related to images of tattoos."

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