The government is ramping up the effort to use tattoos to identify people

Chinese tattoo mafia triad

The government isramping up its efforts to improve the technology it uses to identify people by their tattoos.

Earlier this week the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), which is a part of the US Department of Commerce, hosted a challenge to explore how recognition technology could be used to identify people based on their tattoos.

The event, which was the first of its kind, was called the Tattoo Recognition Technology — Challenge (Tatt-C) and was sponsored by the FBI’s Biometric Center for Excellence.

The participants, which included six groups from both academia and the commercial sector, were given a large data set and asked to create algorithms that scan the information and make identifying people easier based on their body art.

Some of the tasks in the challenge included developing algorithms that can do things like identify an image that contains a tattoo, or matching an image of body art with an image of person who has the same tattoo.

So why is the government trying to improve its tattoo-based recognition technology?

Well, for starters its current process for using body art data is incredibly outdated, said Mai Ngan, a computer scientist for NIST who helped organise the event.

“Right now, law enforcement collects tattoos and labels them using a text-based approach. But that method is not working for a number of reasons,” Ngan told Business Insider.

Currently, law enforcement has been assigning keyword labels to tattoos in a database to help identify people. But that system isn’t really effective because examiners describe tattoos differently or they simply aren’t filling out information about the tattoo at all, Ngan said.

Because the current system is so flawed, there’s a need for automated image-based tattoo matching technology to be adopted.

But the government also wants to improve the system because tattoos can prove helpful in identifying criminals or victims when there isn’t much other biometric data available.

“Tattoos have been used for a long, long time to help with the identification of people and also for investigative research,” Ngan said.

“Tattoos aren’t what we call a primary biometric, so they aren’t a fingerprint or an iris. They can’t uniquely identify a person. But in the cases where you don’t have a face or a fingerprint, tattoos are helping cold cases to progress the investigation,” Ngan said.

While one in five in the U.S. currently have some sort of body ink, the rate of tattoos among criminals is much higher, which is a big reason why law enforcement has taken such an interest in the technology, she said.

However, improving the current system doesn’t mean that the government wants to keep tabs on everyone who has a tattoo. Most of the tattoo data is collected when someone is arrested and booked, Ngan said.

“The government doesn’t have plans to collect everyone who has a tattoo,” Ngan said. “We don’t want to judge, just because you have a tattoo doesn’t mean you are a criminal.”

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