DHS must table self-serving biometrics report — EPIC

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

A First Amendment advocacy group has strongly criticized a new Homeland Security report for ignoring the price Americans might pay for expanding the government’s collection and use of biometrics.

The report, by the biometrics subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, was commissioned to address controversy about Department of Homeland Security tools, including facial recognition systems, and how they are used.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center charges that the report should be tabled by the advisory council. It does not address “pressing privacy and civil liberty concerns” that are raised by the prospect of DHS getting more power to collect and use biometrics.

A recurring biometrics theme among businesses in developed countries is the need to clearly define how biometric data is used and stored. But EPIC points out that the subcommittee makes no relevant rule or policy recommendation.

Nor is there comprehensive federal law or regulation on this point. Actions would remain subject to department policies and procedures, something that EPIC says has proved ineffective in terms of fostering balanced privacy decisions.

Even setting aside EPIC’s concerns, the subcommittee’s document might raise eyebrows among some civic groups.

It reads like a standard corporate circle-the-wagons response plan.

Subcommittee members have recommended that an oversight and coordination council be formed within DHS to review deployment and communication plans submitted by a DHS agency proposing new uses of biometric systems. The agencies would have full operational control of new systems, however, and new requests for biometrics would travel an expedited path to approval.

Expedited processes generally reduce the amount of oversight and debate a proposal gets, which likely would be problematic when dealing with government biometrics systems that often raise complex cost/benefit and ethics questions.

Indeed, it is recommended that agencies identify one person within each DHS agency to be an ethics backstop. DHS’ offices for protecting privacy and civil liberties would also be involved in an undefined way. Both ideas depend on department insiders to corral other insiders, a practice that has a tendency to foster blind eyes.

The document does not suggest seeking input from within the government — from NIST, for example — or from the public. It recommends, instead, that every time a new use for biometrics is proposed, a communication and outreach effort be mounted to sell citizens, businesses, lawmakers and bureaucrats “before or concurrent with implementation.”

EPIC says the government has tied its shoes before slipping them on in this case. Concerns here and abroad about biometrics are not a matter of marketing. They are about privacy, fair use, the right not to be indiscriminately surveilled and the like.

Marketing campaigns also do nothing about system mistakes that can have life-long or even life-threatening consequences, according to the group.

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