EFF Asks Government To Dump DHS's Plan To Massively Expand Its Biometric Collections
from the one-nation,-under-surveillance... dept
The DHS’s hunger for data cannot be satisfied by mandatory facial scanning at airports, cellphone scraping at border checkpoints, or the dozens of government databases crammed full of personal info it has access to. It needs more. So, it’s asking for more. More mandatory collection of biometric info from millions of people, including US citizens.
The EFF is asking the government to dump this program. It has sent its comment [PDF] on the DHS’s proposal, something it had to squeeze in during the agency’s truncated comment period. The EFF notes this is not only unusual, but seems calculated to limit public objection to its sweeping, expansive data-hoovering plan.
EFF strongly objects to the manner in which DHS rolled out this NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking]. Despite the NPRM’s sweeping changes to dozens of federal regulations that implicate the privacy interests of millions of U.S. citizens and non-citizens, DHS only provided the public 30 days to comment on it. Under ordinary circumstances, 30 days would still be well short of the standard 60-day comment period federal agencies generally provide. See Exec. Order No. 13563, 3 C.F.R. 215 (2011). But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced EFF and many others to work remotely under challenging conditions and has restricted the public’s ability to engage with the government, the allotted comment period is inadequate. Moreover, given that DHS has been contemplating an expansion of its biometrics collection practices for over a decade, and that this NPRM constitutes 85 pages in the Federal Register, the public deserved more than 30 days to respond.
It certainly appears as though the DHS hoped to sneak this one past the public while it was otherwise occupied with a global pandemic and a national election. As the EFF explains, this isn’t some incremental change to existing DHS collection programs. It’s a massive expansion — one that should be subjected to far more scrutiny by the public and their elected representatives.
DHS’s biometrics database is already the second largest in the world. It contains biometrics from more than 260 million people. If DHS’s proposed rule takes effect, DHS estimates that it would nearly double the number of people added to that database each year, to over 6 million people. And, equally important, the rule would expand both the types of biometrics DHS collects and how DHS uses them.
It’s not just doubling the number of people it collects from. It would also vastly increase the amount of biometric data collected from the expanded list of targets.
Specifically, the proposal would add palm prints, photographs “including facial images specifically for facial recognition, as well as photographs of physical or anatomical features such as scars, skin marks, and tattoos,” voice prints, iris images, and DNA to the types of biometrics that DHS may require. Additionally, while not mentioned explicitly, the use of the term “behavioral characteristics” in the proposed definition clearly contemplates the future inclusion of so-called behavioral biometrics which can identify a person through the analysis of their movements.
Becoming a naturalized system wouldn’t end the process. The information collected during the application process would be leveraged to provide a lifetime of government surveillance.
The NPRM makes clear that a core goal of DHS’s expansion of biometrics collection would be to implement “enhanced and continuous vetting,” which would require immigrants “be subjected to continued and subsequent evaluation to ensure they continue to present no risk of causing harm subsequent to their entry.” While the NPRM offers few details about what such a program would entail, it appears that DHS would collect biometric data as part of routine immigration applications in order to share that data with law enforcement and monitor individuals indefinitely.
This proposal needs to be dumped. This doesn’t make us the leaders of the free world. The current administration may harbor a deep distrust for foreigners, especially the ones that come in other shades than white, but this combination of intrusive collection and endless monitoring aligns us more with countries like China than the great nation we hopefully still genuinely aspire to be.