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DHS seeks biometric investments for border security; addresses privacy concerns

DHS seeks biometric investments for border security; addresses privacy concerns

The Department of Homeland Security announced a call for innovators in the biometrics field to aid in its objective of improving the screening and inspection of people coming or going from the U.S., while Customs and Border Protection has built on existing biometric systems to address concerns about touch-based platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both agencies also responded to concerns about privacy and security with biometric technology.

DHS looks to science and technology community for biometric solutions

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has made an open call to the science and technology community to suggest solutions for the agency’s most pressing concerns, including biometrics.

A news release by DHS announced its annual Long Range Broad Agency Announcement (LRBAA), where the agency invites the “scientific and technical communities to propose novel ideas that address DHS Components’ highest priority operational needs.” Across six research and development priority areas DHS looks to resolve, biometrics makes an appearance under “Securing Borders” to extend, augment, or improve DHS identity and verification capabilities.

Arun Vemury, the director of the Biometric and Identity Technology Center at the DHS S&T, told Biometric Update in an email that “there are additional opportunities for improvements in several broad areas including data quality, biometric acquisition errors, data integrity and security, and methods for evaluating overall system performance.”

DHS places emphasis on privacy with biometrics, as Vemury says the agency will develop “mitigation strategies” to review and approve all DHS privacy compliance documentation. He adds that the process will include: Privacy Threshold Analysis (PTA), Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA), System of Records Notice (SORN), and periodic review.

“Our Nation’s Homeland security needs are ever-evolving, and to remain agile, DHS counts on its partners in the private sector to access the latest technologies,” Dusty Lang, the DHS S&T LRBAA program manager, says in the announcement. “S&T’s LRBAA is a flexible mechanism that allows DHS to swiftly identify submissions-of-interest to pursue innovative solutions with industry in an efficient way.”

The department collaborates regularly with the science and technology sector, including through a $1.7 million Silicon Valley Innovation Program for biometric wearables in January.

The announcement by the DHS comes as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency told Homeland Security Today that they are expanding the use of touchless biometrics like facial recognition on seaports and land crossings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. An executive at the CBP said they would work alongside the privacy community and gave examples of their efforts to ensure security such as publishing more than 10 privacy impact assessments.

DHS addresses worries over facial recognition, privacy

The chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges potential problems with the use of biometrics like facial recognition and broad privacy concerns with the agency, which she says will be addressed.

Lynn Parker Dupree, the department’s chief privacy officer, who has a history of serving the corporate and public sector in privacy-related matters, told Federal News Network that, “One of the things I would like to do is really begin to include privacy in technical design. A lot of our privacy mitigations happen after a technology is developed. But I have been really working with academia and technologists to figure out how we can build tools that actually enhance privacy.”

Dupree noted the “unique” challenges with biometrics, particularly facial recognition, as tests show that some algorithms are less accurate when identifying people with darker skin colours. Civil rights groups have spoken out against the DHS’s use of facial recognition over these concerns. Research from the DHS published in 2021 says facial features related to race and gender can be removed to reduce demographic differences in biometric accuracy.

The DHS is also facing criticism from Democratic Senators and Representatives due to the use of Clearview AI’s facial recognition, who demanded that the agency halt its applications.

To alleviate the apprehensions, Dupree points out several ways the DHS is working to improve on privacy and biometrics. She says, “We will make sure that there are mechanisms in place to mitigate those risks,” regarding potential inaccuracies and biases in biometric technology, and will collaborate with the chief information officer, the agency’s science and technology arm, and the procurement directorate on including new privacy enhancements. The privacy office will host a workshop in June for privacy researchers who could explore cryptographic techniques and other “secure computing methodologies” as potential enhancements. Dupree aims to improve engagement with external privacy stakeholders in academia and civil society as well.

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