Feds see southwest border as biometric-rich proving ground. So do opponents
The United States’ border with Mexico could be the first real battlefield over the federal government’s comprehensive use of biometric surveillance.
President Joe Biden, who is desperate to neutralize immigration as an issue, sees AI algorithms, machine vision and big data as a politically moderate option for securing the border.
Many privacy advocates see mass collection of multiple biometric identifiers from migrants as similarly anti-democratic to mass surveillance of lawful citizens.
Political conservatives are mostly quiet, happy to see the Biden administration struggle. But the next time they control Congress, it is likely that no immigrants’ identifier will be too personal to gather, catalog, use and share.
The Supreme Court has offered little direction on how it views the constitutionality of warrantless searches, which privacy advocates consider biometrics harvesting by the Department of Homeland Security to be.
The department last spring reversed a policy enacted by the previous administration that required immigrants and their U.S. sponsors to surrender iris, voice, face biometrics and fingerprints to get a visa.
Still, officials said, they need to collect more information at the border to fight crime and terrorism. According to a Law360 article, they said they will consider how to get useful data without needlessly intruding on a subject’s privacy.
Privacy advocates are watching for any resumption of wholesale collection. A new report has been published by immigration-rights groups Mijente, Just Futures Law and the No Border Wall Coalition.
It finds that at least one iris scan pilot has been run on the border and agencies now collect DNA samples without the consent of any non-citizens picked up by immigration officials. The DNA records are kept in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System, or Codis.
The report spotlights how immigration agents use the so-called e3 portal, which holds multiple apps that collect and send biometrics. (Fourteen technologies used in the government’s digital border wall are described by Business Insider here.)
Agents use the portal to send finger, face and iris prints to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement case-management system, which facilitates migrant removal. The data also becomes part of Homeland Security’s Ident database, which holds identifiers for 260 million people and can process 350,000 biometric-based cases daily.