FBI to develop tattoo database

Agency is asking local law enforcement agencies for help collecting tattoo information


Walter Pacheco
The Augusta Chronicle

ORLANDO, Fla. — The FBI wants your tattoos — more specifically, the meanings behind their inky black lines and colorful shapes — and it's asking local law enforcement agencies for help.

The FBI's Biometric Center of Excellence, which already collects tattoos and other identity markers in its massive database, sent a request July 13 to police agencies for information "related to any current databases containing tattoo/symbol images, their possible meanings, gang affiliations, terrorist groups or other criminal organizations."

In this photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE officers check a tattoo to log any identifiable gang affiliation in Los Angeles, in this photo, date unknown during a nationwide summer crackdown. (AP Photo/ICE)
In this photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE officers check a tattoo to log any identifiable gang affiliation in Los Angeles, in this photo, date unknown during a nationwide summer crackdown. (AP Photo/ICE)

Gang members and terrorist groups often share symbols among their followers as a way to easily identify one another and gauge member loyalty. Members of the Latin Kings, for example, illustrate their bodies with a crown, while members of the MS-13 gang usually tattoo "MS" on their skin. But other symbols are more cryptic.

FBI agents say combining their database with information gathered from tattoo databases at more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies could improve everyone's biometric-based crime-fighting and anti-terrorism efforts.

"Some of our database users have expressed a desire for (knowing) what tattoos may potentially mean," said Bill Casey, the program director at the FBI's biometric center. "We are trying to learn the lay of the land and see if there are any databases out there agencies may want to share."

Central Florida law enforcement agencies routinely save in databases the digital images they take of tattoos and scars found on suspects, others under investigation or bodies that are discovered.

The FBI's interest in broadening and deepening its tattoo database is part of the agency's larger project of collecting biometric information for its Next Generation Identification Program. That initiative also aims to expand the agency's collection of fingerprints, palm prints and iris scans.

The agency hopes to deploy an improved, searchable database of tattoos, scars and birthmarks in 2014, agency records show.

Eric Phillips, an FBI management-and-program analyst, said law enforcement's ability to decipher tattoos would benefit civilians, too.

"The database could actually benefit the kid who gets a tattoo similar to a gang tattoo and lands in jail," Phillips said. "If a gang finds out that he's not really a member, it could be a very dangerous situation for that kid."

Copyright 2012 Southeastern Newspapers Corporation

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