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CBP tells House Committee biometric programs legal and beneficial


The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies faced criticism and pointed questions about privacy, security, and discrimination issues that can arise from the use of facial recognition and other biometrics from U.S. lawmakers from the House Committee on Homeland Security.

In his opening remarks, committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) referenced a recent story in the Washington Post describing a trove of internal documents and emails that shed light on the extent of biometric information sharing between state DMVs and federal law enforcement agencies, specifically the FBI and DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Customs and Border Protection’s Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner told the committee that a “significant amount of time” passed between the breach of data from a subcontractor and the subcontractor’s notification of the agency, but was not able to specify how long. He says that CBP is adding audit controls to its systems to prevent data from being extracted via portable media drives. Wagner also testified that CBP has not found significant error rates relating to skin color in its pilots.

Thompson suggested that CBP’s Biometric Entry/Exit program goes beyond the scope mandated by congress. Wagner pushed back, arguing that the program makes travel much more convenient, and is grounded in CBP’s existing authority, automating a process which had previously been manual. He also noted the different steps for American citizens, including the deletion of data after 12 hours and the right to opt out.

“U.S. citizens are clearly outside the scope of the biometric entry-exit tracking. The technology we’re using for the entry-exit program we’re also using to validate the identity of the U.S. citizen,” Wagner said, as quoted by Gizmodo. “Someone has to do that.”

The hearing also heard from NIST Information Technology Lab Director Charles Romine, Transportation Security Administration Assistant Administrator Austin Gould, and Secret Service Chief Technology Officer Joseph DiPietro.

In response to questions about the potential of facial recognition systems for racial discrimination, Gould testified that the TSA is not observing “significant error rates that are attributable to a single demographic,” Law.com reports. Romine said that differences in performance between demographics is decreasing, but that it is unlikely the technology will ever have exactly equal performance for every demographic, but NIST is working on determining the extent of the difference. NIST will publish a report based on findings from its latest Facial Recognition Vendor Test this fall, according to Romine.

DiPietro described a small-scale pilot program the Secret Service operating around the White House.

“I am not opposed to biometric technology and recognize it can be valuable to homeland security and facilitation,” Thompson said during the hearing, as quoted by NextGov. “However, its proliferation across [Homeland Security] raises serious questions about privacy, data security, transparency and accuracy.”

In a statement issued immediately prior the hearing, Thompson suggested the government’s biometric deployments are moving too fast.

“Before the government deploys these technologies further, they must be scrutinized and the American public needs to be given a chance to weigh in.”

Issues related to federal agency use of facial recognition are likely to be further examined in hearings by the House Oversight Committee, if not the Homeland Security Committee, and lawmakers meanwhile have been calling for new legislation to limit or regulate the technology’s use.

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