Posted by: Kay Heffernan | November 17, 2014

Documentation in the Digital Age

Alli’s post about un/documentation recalled the discussions we had about documentation of criminals and, later, of Irish political prisoners towards the beginning of the semester. Today, she said, we have countless outlets via social media platforms through which to channel our voices: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and the like. We are documenting ourselves. While I agree that a class-determined invisibility (also determined by celebrity status?) exists, I see a great threat posited by the documentary and archival functions of these platforms – a threat for everyone, regardless of personal and social identities.

In September of this year, the FBI released a statement that its improved biometric analysis software was at “full operational capacity.” This system, in development for over eight years, is called Next Generation Identification (NGI) and will replace completely the FBI’s preexisting fingerprint identification database/program. NGI captures not only facial structure and fingerprints, but also tattoos, scars, bodily marks, and gait. Although the FBI has allegedly has the storage capacity for this data for years, NGI automates the process of documentation and retrieval. NGI does what the police officers and documentarians in Irish political prisons couldn’t do: streamline the archival and functional processes of documentation of criminals to actually be useful – or harmful, depending on how you view it.

According to the FBI’s press release, NGI has more advanced biometric recognition and capture capabilities than any identification system before. With a new feature called Rap Back, police and other surveilling authorities will “receive ongoing status notifications of any criminal history reported on individuals holding positions of trust.” Rap Back also monitors people under “investigation or supervision,” potentially encompassing a wide range of criminals, guilty or not.

On September 14, the FBI declared that its new digital archive holds over 52 million faces of  criminals and civilians. Because of the recent Freedom of Information Act, the FBI is required to provide estimates of civilian faces, thought to be up to 4.3 million. These civilian photographs are taken from employer records as well as the aforementioned social media platforms. The FBI claims that those selected by the system are not identified as criminals, but as “investigative leads.” In other words (of the FBI), NGI will not incriminate innocent civilians. I don’t buy this. Consider how the biometric documentation of the body and physical/anatomical definition of the criminal begun by Lombroso and Bertillon continues in our societal fascination with the body today. Are misleading physiognomic analyses making a return to the FBI’s investigations? (Okay, maybe not that far, but the widespread and civilian analysis is frightening.)

To return Alli’s question about documentation and invisibility, I don’t think that any of us are wholly invisible with this new NGI software. Surveillance camera footage, selfies posted on Instagram, tagged photos on Facebook – we are, to quote journalist Natasha Lennard, “feed[ing]” the information system, increasing this software’s ability to recognize and inculcate us in crimes and other questionable activities. Whether we document ourselves, we are not invisible.

Makes me think twice about Instagramming the tattoo I want to get over break…


Federal Bureau of Investigation. Criminal Justice Information Services. FBI Announces
Full Operational Capability of the Next Generation Identification 5 Sept. 2014.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Criminal Justice Information Services. Image-Based Matching Technology Offers Identification and Intelligence 2013.
Lennard, Natasha. “Your Face, Voice, and Tattoos Are the FBI’s Business Now.” Vice News. N.p., 17 Sept. 2014.

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