Tattoos, Tattoo Recognition, and Privacy

Tattoo Recognition

When I was a kid, people with tattoos were pretty few and far between.  If you had ink there was a good chance you’d been in the military or jail.  If you had tattoos on your hands, head, or neck you had almost certainly been to jail, or were, at very least, somone people didn’t want to mess with. These days a guy (or girl) with knuckle tattoos is just as likely to be a barista or art major as an ex-con.  A recent Harris poll estimates that 1 in 3 Americans has a tattoo, and half of millenials have them.

I like tattoos.  I appreciate good tattoo artistry.  I have tattoos and am even planning more tattoos.  However, they can pose some serious privacy risks. With the increased commonality of tattoos, it is been realized that tattoos are a personal identifier. Much like facial recognition or fingerprint readers, tattoo recogition is frequently based on the relation of known points in a tattoo.  The FBI has a program in the works to identify individuals by their tattoos.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has the TATT-C (Tattoo Recognition Technology – Challenge) which was begun in 2014 in an attempt to enhance the FBI’s program.  The NIST program gathered much of its sample size from federal inmates and has been accused of a number of abuses by the EFF.

Risks of Tattoo Recognition

Tattoo recognition is invasive for two reasons.  You can be identified through your tattoos, in much the same way as facial recognition. This requires that your adversary has a sample for comparison, but this is not outside the realm of possibility or even probability.  Most people have photos of their tattoos on social media.  If you have been in the military recently your tattoos have probably been recorded in promotion photographs.  If you have been arrested, there is a decent chance your tattoos were photographed. Once your identification is made, you can be tracked through an airport or shopping mall or positively identified on social media – even if your face is not visible.  The other, more alarming risk of tattoo recognition is the inferences that can be drawn from your tattoos.  The NIST TATT-C program attempted to draw conclusions from an individual’s tattoos including political alignment and religious affiliation. To me this seems to be a fertile breeding ground for false positives.

Mitigating Tattoo Recognition Risks

Tattoo recognition technology relies on one major factor: visual access.  To recognize your tattoos, they must be visually accessible.  All of the mitigations below rely on denying visual access to them.

Think twice before getting inked: The best defense: don’t get tattoos.  I am saying this as a person who has major privacy concerns around tattoos. Though you can hide your tattoos sometimes, you may not be able to hide them all the time.  If you are arrested they will be recorded.  Likewise if you are in the military.  Tattoos are markers that make you visually distinctive from others, and they are permanent.  Once they have been associated with you it is extremely difficult to get rid of them.

Personal note: I also say this as a man who has had some serious cover-up work done, and one who is much happier with the work he had done in his thirties than the work done in his teens and twenties.  If you already have tattoos or are determined to get them, read on.

Consider placement carefully: Before you head down to your local ink-slinger, think about where you want to put your tattoo.  I strongly recommend choosing a placement that can be easily hidden.  Most of my tats can be covered by shorts and a t-shirt. This means they aren’t visually observed or recorded by security cameras when I’m in public.  It also means that if I want to hide them I don’t have to be the only guy in a long-sleeved shirt on a hot summer day. I have control over who sees them and who doesn’t, allowing me to opt-out of tracking via tattoo.  And it probably makes my mom a little bit happier.

Protect images of your tats: Photographs of your tattoos should be protected as carefully as photographs of your face. Even if you don’t explicitly take a photograph of your tattoo it may appears incidentally in other photos. These photographs may be used as a visual record to identify you at a future date.

Getting a tattoo is an intensely personal act, and there are many intensely personal reasons for getting one. I don’t begrudge anyone their tattoos, but I do encourage thoughtfulness going forward.  Though this is currently only a budding field, tattoo recognition technology will only get better with time, and the best defense is a good offense.

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