A newly announced FBI plan to catalog precise physical characteristics of individuals around the world -- a vast $1 billion dollar project that makes the bureau's fingerprint database look quaint by comparison -- is raising eyebrows among critics who worry about how the data may be used.
Taking advantage of the science of biometrics, which relies on precise body measurements unique to every human being, the FBI hopes to be able to identify criminal and terrorist suspects by face-shape, scars and even iris patterns.
But the idea raises some red flags for CNN legal analyst Sonny Hostin.
"The goal to have a comprehensive data base to track terror suspects, criminals, that sort of thing. I think it's a wonderful goal," said Hostin. "But you have to be very careful, because what if the wrong person is in that database? That is something that can follow you forever."
Hostin pointed out that while victims of other forms of identity theft could eventually correct the record, stolen biometric information -- in the wrong hands -- would present a more permanent problem.
In a Saturday piece about the initiative in the Washington Post, Silicon Valley tech forecaster Paul Saffo worried that the FBI would be unable to ensure that the data was secure.
"Unlike say, a credit card number, biometric data is forever," Saffo told the paper. "If someone steals and spoofs your iris image, you can't just get a new eyeball."
Asked by CNN anchor Alina Cho whether the database should concern "those of use who aren't on terror watch lists, like the two of us," Hostin cut her off.
"Hopefully," she joked about her absence from the terror list, but added that the plan warranted serious concern.
"I'm already in a database, having been a federal prosecutor and having security clearance," she said. "The FBI wants to take that information and keep it and that's the problem -- and generally you can get access to it and ask for information that's on you. But in this situation you may not be able to get that information. So I think everyone does have to be careful."
As reported by the Post, other critics voiced additional concerns about the program.
"You're giving the federal government access to an extraordinary amount of information linked to biometric identifiers that is becoming increasingly inaccurate," said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Nevertheless, Barry Steinhardt, the director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the paper that the system was poised to become a ubiquitous law enforcement tool.
"It's going to be an essential component of tracking," he said. "It's enabling the Always On Surveillance Society." This video is from CNN's American Morning, broadcast on December 24, 2007.