Watchdogs Ring Alarm on Biometric Info
(CN) - The government's growing database of DNA and other identifying information is raising concerns from privacy and immigration advocates who want greater accountability about law enforcement's collection of biometric data, according to a new report.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Immigration Policy Center on Wednesday released their 23-page report, "From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities."
The report, written by Electronic Frontier staff attorney Jennifer Lynch, raises concerns about the growing government database of biometric data collected from immigrants and other groups.
Homeland Security takes 300,000 fingerprints from noncitizens who cross the border every day, and regularly collects fingerprints and other data from people who are applying for immigration benefits, the report says.
Besides fingerprints, biometrics are typically collected through DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs.
State and local law enforcement also collect this information, and the FBI has started working with several states to collect face-recognition-ready photos of suspects who have been arrested and booked, the report says.
"Once these federal biometrics systems are fully deployed, and once each of their approximately 100+ million records also includes photographs, it may become trivially easy to find and track people within the United States," the report states.
The groups are also concerned that collection tools "are getting smaller, more advanced, and less obtrusive, increasing their use for non-invasive though known, as well as unobtrusive, collection purposes."
"Increasingly, devices are portable, transmit data wirelessly, and are designed to allow collection, verification, and identification 'in the field,'" the report says.
Problems with biometrics collection are not limited to government agencies, the groups say, pointing to Facebook's face-recognition service that allows users to find friends online.
"It is likely the government will try to find a way to take advantage of Facebook's face recognition service for each of these purposes soon," according to the report.
The report urges the government to limit its collection of biometrics, and calls for more accountability about how the databases are used.
"Some people believe biometrics and databases are the silver bullets that will solve the immigrant enforcement dilemma," said Michele Waslin, Senior Policy Analyst at the Immigration Policy Center. "But biometrics are not infallible, and databases contain errors. These problems can result in huge negative consequences for U.S. citizens and legal immigrants mistakenly identified."
The Secure Communities program, started by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in 2008, is a prime example of the problems with biometrics collections, according to the report. The program has been criticizedby a number of high-ranking law enforcement officials.
A report from two organizations suing the government over the program said it "distracts police from their primary functions, it diverts their resources, and it destroys trust with immigrant communities by making police frontline enforcers of broken and outdated immigration laws."
"Without trust, crimes go unreported, investigations go unsolved, decades of community policing efforts are destroyed, and we are all less safe."
More than 20,000 people who were deported under the program in 2011 were not convicted of any crime, and ICE often starts deportation proceedings before people are convicted, the report says.
"Biometrics collection and its accompanying privacy concerns are not going away," the report says in its conclusion. It continues: "Given this, it is imperative that government act now to limit unnecessary biometrics collection; instill proper protections on data collection, transfer and search; ensure accountability; mandate independent oversight; require appropriate legal process before biometric collection; and define clear rules for data sharing at all levels.
"This is important not just for immigrants and immigrant communities, but also for democratic society as a whole."