DHS to store tens of thousands of refugee biometric records from UNHCR

UNHCR-BIMS-Thailand

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) began sharing records including fingerprints, iris scans, and facial biometrics of refugees it is recommending for resettlement consideration in the U.S. with the country’s Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), Nextgov reports.

The UNHCR sends tens of thousands of profiles to federal agencies each year, according to the report, and the Department of Homeland Services (DHS) is retaining the data for all of them, including those who do not actually come to the U.S. The biometric data will be stored in the IDENT system, and HART once it goes live.

“Biometric verification guards against substitution of individuals or identity fraud in the resettlement process,” the USCIS privacy impact assessment for the program states. “Many refugees live for long periods in asylum countries, and the use of biometrics ensures that there is [an] unbroken continuity of identity over time and between different locations.”

Nextgov notes that UNHCR stats show the USCIS reviewed close to 85,000 cases in 2018, and approved less than a quarter for admission to the U.S.

“A centralized database of biometric data belonging to refugees, without appropriate controls, could really lead to surveillance of those refugees as well as potentially coercive forms of scrutiny,” Human Rights Watch Artificial Intelligence Researcher Amos Toh told Nextgov. “I think there needs to be a lot more clarity on … how this data is being shared and is being used.”

Toh also referred to issues around consent for personal data-sharing in humanitarian contexts.

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