With all the furor over NSA surveillance, a lesser-known type of surveillance has been expanding exponentially. Various law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have begun using biometrics, such as facial recognition, in an attempt to fight crime and terrorism. It is estimated that 120 million facial images are stored in searchable databases across the country. Currently, in 26 states, law enforcement authorities are able to search these images for crime suspects, victims and witnesses.

The faces of millions of people are in searchable photo databases that state officials initially assembled to prevent driver’s license fraud but that increasingly are used by police to identify suspects and accomplices. They are also being used to identify innocent bystanders in various criminal investigations.

Facial databases have expanded rapidly in recent years and generally function with few legal safeguards beyond the requirement that searches are conducted for “law enforcement purposes.”

The most commonly used systems were honed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan as a way of seeking out and identifying insurgents. The increasingly widespread deployment of the technology in the United States has assisted law enforcement with locating bank robbers, murderers and drug dealers. Of those, many leave behind images on surveillance videos or social-media sites that can be compared against official photo databases.

Police use of facial databases, however, is obscuring the conventional boundaries between criminal and non-criminal databases, allowing images of people never arrested in what could be described as digital lineups. The most advanced systems allow police to run searches from laptop computers in their patrol cars and offer access to the FBI and other federal authorities.

As the databases grow larger and more connected across jurisdictional boundaries, some fear that authorities are developing what is essentially a national identification system. “Where is government going to go with that years from now?” asked Louisiana state Rep. Brett Geymann. Geymann is a Republican who has stood in opposition against these types of systems. “Here your driver’s license essentially becomes a national ID card,” he added.

And, the Supreme Court’s recent approval of DNA collection during arrests further expands use of that technology, with suspects in some cases submitting to tests that put their genetic details in official databases, even if they are never convicted of a crime.

Of the 37 states that now use facial-recognition technology in their driver’s-license registries, at least 26 allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to perform searches, or request searches, of the facial recognition databases.

According to the Washington Post:

“That prospect has sparked fears that the databases authorities are building could someday be used for monitoring political rallies, sporting events or even busy downtown areas. Whatever the security benefits — especially at a time when terrorism remains a serious threat — the mass accumulation of location data on individuals could chill free speech or the right to assemble, civil libertarians say.

‘As a society, do we want to have total surveillance? Do we want to give the government the ability to identify individuals wherever they are . . . without any immediate probable cause?’ asked Laura Donohue, a Georgetown University law professor who has studied government facial databases. ‘A police state is exactly what this turns into if everybody who drives has to lodge their information with the police.’

Police typically need only to assert a law enforcement purpose for facial searches, whether they be of suspects or potential witnesses to crimes. Civil libertarians worry that this can lead to broadly defined identity sweeps. Already many common but technically illegal activities — blocking a sidewalk, cycling at night without a light or walking a dog without a leash — can trigger police stops and requests for identification, they say.

But the broader trend is toward more sophisticated databases with more expansive access. The current version of the Senate’s immigration bill would dramatically expand an electronic photo-verification system, probably relying on access to driver’s-license registries.”

The State Department has the largest facial database, which includes approximately 230 million images, split almost equally between foreigners who apply for visas and U.S. citizens who hold passports.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has expanded its biometrics source from fingerprint to iris and facial recognition for identity verification. In addition to collecting iris and facial images on suspected illegal immigrants or immigrants arrested at border patrol stations,the DHS has also developed a program called Future Attribute Screening Technology.

In Florida, parents were outraged at finding that students were subjected to iris scans absent their parents’ permission. This violation of privacy took place in at least 3 Polk County, Florida schools.

According to Reason Magazine, by Fall several schools — ranging from elementary schools to colleges — will be implementing an assortment of iris scanning security methods.

Winthrop University (WU) is one example:

“Associate Vice President for Information Technology James Hammond told Campus Reform the school is installing the iris scanners, which cost roughly $2,000 a piece, on buildings throughout the 445-acre campus in order to keep out “bad guys.”

Hammond said the eye scanners, called ‘EagleEye stations,’ will be implemented in several phases and adding that the university has already scanned the eyes of over 1600 students.”

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has been waiting for a year on three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in pursuit of information on exactly what the federal government is up to regarding the use of facial recognition technology. EFF has filed a lawsuit in order to ensure it gets results from the FBI:

“Since early 2011, EFF has been closely following the FBI’s work to build out its Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometrics database, which would replace and expand upon the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The new program will include multiple biometric identifiers, such as iris scans, palm prints, face-recognition-ready photos, and voice data, and that information will be shared with other agencies at the local, state, federal and international levels. The face recognition component is set to launch in 2014.

‘NGI will result in a massive expansion of government data collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes,’ says EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch, who testified before the U.S. Senate on the privacy implications of facial recognition technology in July of last year. ‘Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images.’”

EFF wants the FBI to reveal information on agreements and discussions between the FBI and various state agencies in regard to the face-recognition program. EFF also seeks records addressing the reliability of face-recognition technology and documentation of the FBI’s plan to merge civilian and criminal records in a single repository. In addition to that, EFF is requesting disclosure of the total number of face-recognition capable records in the FBI’s database, at the present time, as well as the proposed number at deployment.