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A push to make a DHS biometric program permanent


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

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are again pushing legislation that would make a decade-old biometric border-protection pilot program permanent.

The Biometric Identification Transnational Migration Alert Authorization Act was approved by the House in a bipartisan tally of 272 to 119 in 2018. It later died in the Senate. The face- and fingerprint-scanning program itself is known as Bitmap.

Why success has eluded sponsors is not clear, especially because Bitmap was launched by the Homeland Security Intelligence agency in 2011. (Some accounts say 2010.)

There has been debate about who does what from an oversightpoint of view. For instance, can Homeland Security negotiate agreements with foreign governments? That generally is reserved for other agencies.

Also curious is the need for an ongoing campaign to make the program permanent because Bitmap has continued uninterrupted every year since its founding.

Bitmap seeks to enlist partners among foreign governments to use Department of Homeland Security AI software and scanning hardware in an effort to identify specific people unwelcome in the United States. Matches are passed to Homeland Security.

That could be terrorists and criminals, but given Homeland Security’s history for opaque operations, it could include people with unwelcome political views or advocates of controversial causes.

Core details about the program are unknown, including its success rate, secrecy that has raised red flags for some in Washington.

According to data that is known — some of which is old — 14 nations had become partners as of 2018.

In statements delivered during related Congressional hearings, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (who leads the effort to get the act passed), said Bitmap “has enrolled over 155,000 encounters of persons of interest and 460 known and suspected terrorists.”McCaul offered no attribution for his figures.

Similarly, he claims “violent criminals and rapists involved in transnational criminal organizations” have been arrested with the help of Bitmap.

Last October, a small trade publication owned by the trade group Government Technology & Services Coalition, reported that Homeland Security and Brazil federal police used tools including Bitmap to capture an Egyptian-Lebanese man trying to smuggle nine Yemenis into the United States.

Stopping anyone threatening the safety of Americans is a success, but the anecdote and figures cited offer no context forgauging Bitmap’s return on investment or rate of false positives.Another agency might be persuaded to invest in biometrics programs based on incomplete information and get disappointing results.

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson filed a dissenting opinion on the program in 2018. Thompson asked, for example, what protection is there for a non-citizen far from U.S. borders who involuntarily surrenders biometric data to both a foreign government and the United States, but who has no intention of entering?

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