Biometric data standards in 50 countries ranked with China and U.S. near bottom
Comparitech has published a ranking of 50 countries in the world according to their biometric data collection and usage practices, which declares China to show the most concerning lack of regard for biometric data privacy, followed by Malaysia, Pakistan, and the U.S. The countries found to have the least concerning practices, and the best regulation, are Ireland and Portugal, followed by a tie between four other countries in Europe.
Countries are assigned points in 9 categories, such as “passports,” “IDs,” “No laws,” “Banks,” and “Voter Registration,” resulting in scores out of 25, with higher indicating a more extensive and invasive use of biometrics or surveillance.
Key findings include that many countries collect travelers’ biometric data, often at airports, which is hardly surprising given international standards such as ICAO. Every country is using biometrics for bank accounts, and biometric use is widely accepted, despite wide recognition that biometric data is sensitive, according to a blog post on the findings. Facial recognition is being implemented or tested in a large number of countries, but in Europe workplace protections provided by GDPR boosted scores ahead of many non-EU countries. Estonia is singled out as the most concerning in the EU, due largely to its national biometric database.
The relatively low rankings of China and the U.S. are due in part to the massive national biometric data collection in the former, which is being expanded to include DNA, and the use of facial recognition by government agencies, in particular the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its sub-agencies responsible for immigration and borders, respectively.
China and U.S. carry on with programs
Authorities in China are attempting to create facial images from DNA profiles, with data fueled by the mass DNA collection efforts in Xinjiang, The New York Times reports.
China’s mass DNA collection program in Xinjiang has long been criticized, as has the involvement of American academics and businesses.
Last year, researchers carried out a study in the San Diego area to explore the possibility of identifying a person’s face based on traits predicted through gene sequencing. Similar research is now being carried out by China’s Ministry of Public Security, according to The Times, and two scientists working with the ministry have received financial backing from European academic institutions. The Times also says international science journals have printed the findings of such studies without vetting the origin of DNA samples or the ethical issues they raise.
Papers have included claims that the norms of the international association of scientists were followed, which would suggest there are records of written consent from data subjects somewhere, but The Times reports that many are given no choice.
An assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Canada who tracks Chinese genetics projects, Mark Munsterhjelm, says that in the scientific community, “there’s a kind of culture of complacency that has now given way to complicity.”
The effectiveness of phenotyping has been questioned by experts, as well as its ethics.
Despite this, Germany-based research group the Max Planck Society co-founded the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, and funded Tang Kun, a scientist working on phenotyping in China, with $22,000 a year prior to his work with the police. Another expert, Liu Fan, is an adjunct assistant professor at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Both were named as authors of a study of Uighur faces last year.
The Times report leaves unanswered questions about the timing of the relationships, or the precise roles of Thermo Fisher and fellow U.S. company Illumina, each of which supply equipment used in the tests.
The recent announcement by DHS that it plans to expand mandatory biometric checks at airports to U.S. citizens has been attacked by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) as “disturbing government coercion,” CBS News reports.
Markey and fellow Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) have previously called on DHS to pause the roll-out of biometric checks and explain its plans.
Referring to a recent breach by a CBP contractor, Markey states: “Homeland Security cannot be trusted to keep our information safe and secure. I will soon introduce legislation to ensure that innocent American citizens are never forced to hand over their facial recognition information.”
“Time and again, the government told the public and members of Congress that U.S. citizens would not be required to submit to this intrusive surveillance technology as a condition of traveling,” Senior ACLU Policy Analyst Jay Stanley pointed out to CBS News. “This new notice suggests that the government is reneging on what was already an insufficient promise.”
CBP has met with privacy groups, meanwhile, to discuss the implementation of its Biometric Entry-Exit mandate.
“CBP is committed to keeping the public informed about our use of facial comparison technology,” said John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the CBP Office of Field Operations in an announcement. “We are implementing a biometric entry-exit system that protects the privacy of all travelers while making travel more secure and convenient.”
The agency says measures adopted through its consultations with stakeholders include reducing the maximum data retention period from 14 days to 12 hours, establishing data retention standards to prevent airlines and other partners from using traveler photos for business purposes, work with partners to improve public notification with enhanced signage and announcements, and the publication of 10 Privacy Impact Assessments to inform the public of its plans.
CBP also notes that U.S. citizens are currently entitled to opt out of biometric entry and exit participation, and can notify a CBP officer or airline representative to present their passports for visual inspection in the traditional way.
This post was edited at 8:45 ET on December 4, 2019 to clarify that biometric entry and exit are currently optional for U.S. citizens.