Why Is the Government Collecting Your Biometric Data?

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Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Jennifer Lynch discusses the expansion of biometric data collection, the growth of databases and the impact on increased surveillance.

The next time you get pulled over, watch for a blocky, black gadget attached to the officer’s iPhone. That’s the MORIS device, one of many mobile fingerprint and biometric scanners proliferating in police departments around the country. MORIS is designed to ascertain identity and dig up an unsavory past, but that’s not all: the device can also gather iris scans, fingerprints, and photos searchable with face recognition technology.

Mobile scanners like MORIS are just one of the many ways biometric data (unique, identifying physical features including fingerprints, DNA or iris scans) is collected and potentially fed into government and private biometric databases that have swelled in both size and sophistication in the decade after 9/11.

The Department of Justice is expanding its fingerprint database to include iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, scars, tattoos, and measures of voice and gait. The DoD collects iris scans, prints and face recognition photos from anyone coming in and out of Afghanistan; Department of Homeland Security gathers face recognition photos and fingerprints from people entering the U.S. Even motor vehicle departments in many states use face recognition technology to ID people when they get their licenses, and they tend to be cooperative with criminal investigations. The big agencies are also increasingly making their databases interoperable, so an immigrant’s print that lands in the DHS database (IDENT) can be accessed by the FBI. Information is also shared with foreign governments and private companies.

In a recent EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) report, Jennifer Lynch chronicles the growth of biometric databases that contain everything from fingerprints to DNA to iris scans and face recognition images. Unsurprisingly, immigrants are one of the likeliest targets; Lynch talks about the LAPD’s habit of cruising streets where day laborers gather and picking up their fingerprints with mobile scanners. The Secure Communities program, a more large-scale and catastrophic example, lets police send fingerprints to the FBI, which can share the information with DHS, which then deploys ICE to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

AlterNet spoke with Lynch about the expansion of biometric data collection, the growth of databases and the impact on increased surveillance on citizens and immigrants alike.

Tana Ganeva: The scope of this data collection is so overwhelming. What are they trying to collect and why?

Jennifer Lynch: I totally agree that the scope of data collection is overwhelming. There’s just so much that the federal government collects at this point. And there’s so much data sharing going on between agencies, so many points of interaction with the government where data is collected. The data is pretty massive at this point.

Some of the key places the government collects data are at any kind of border crossing, if you’re not a US citizen – or what they call a "non-US person" – or if you interact with the criminal justice system. And those are the two main ways that your data can be collected by the government.

TG: By "interact" with the criminal justice system, you don’t mean just a conviction, but any encounter with police, like getting pulled over, right? You don’t actually have to be guilty of something?

JL: Yes, any sort of arrest, and at this point, it could be as minimal as being stopped for a moving violation, because lots of police officers carry mobile fingerprint scanners. As I talked about in the report, even if you’re just standing in the street corner in Los Angeles, trying to get a job, you can get your fingerprints scanned. So there are a number of ways even just the common citizen could have their fingerprints collected by the federal government.

Another example that happens pretty frequently is in a domestic violence situation. Let’s say someone calls the cops because he or she is being abused, and the cops get there and they’re not sure who instigated it and they pick up both parties. And so even in that situation the victim could have their fingerprints collected.

The same thing happens at border crossings for people who are non-US citizens: fingerprints are collected. At this point it’s a 10 print scan – it used to be your index finger or thumb but now it’s all 10 fingerprints. It’s also a photo, and the FBI now has a facial recognition database and the DHS is building out their facial recognition database as well.

TG: So it’s not just fingerprints – that’s sort of a holdover from the ’90s – they’re also expanding what they collect, like face recognition photos and iris scans.

JL: It’s interesting because those of us in the civil liberties world have two main arguments. One is that this is an infringement of our privacy rights and our right to have certain things kept private from the government. But another argument is that this data isn’t accurate, and this is especially true of immigration databases – the data is notoriously inaccurate, but also DNA collection. There have been lots of cases where DNA has been thrown out. So what the federal government is saying now is that because the data can be inaccurate, or let’s say someone doesn’t have fingerprints anymore if they’re a laborer or something, the government can collect more data to make the database more accurate.

The problem with that is that it just increases the ability of the federal government to track people. Once facial recognition becomes more accurate – you know, there are cameras everywhere in our world – not just ones controlled by the government, there are also private cameras and street corner cameras.

TG: And face recognition also presents the danger of people’s identifying information being scooped up and logged without any interaction with law enforcement – for example, during a political protest.

JL: There’s a great example of this from the Stanley Cup in British Columbia. There’s this photo you can find online that’s a gigapixel photograph from a bunch of security cameras that were already in place and the image was stitched together so you could look down the street and see what looks like 100,000 people. If you look at the original picture, you think, "How could I ever identify people in that picture?" But you can drill down to where you can identify people. And when the Stanley Cup riots happened in British Columbia there was a lot of looting and the government tried to match the pictures of the looters to photographs the DMV had already collected in their facial recognition database.

Of course, we don’t want to condone the destruction of property, but it’s interesting that just anybody on the street can take your picture and give it to the cops and the picture can correlate with another picture in a database thanks to facial recognition.

TG: Law enforcement will often argue that in public privacy protections don’t really apply since anyone can technically see what you’re doing.

JL: We’ve always had a level of anonymity through obscurity, because people are not taking photographs wherever they go – and we rely on that in how we interact with the world and I think that’s key to a democratic society, that we don’t have somebody watching over us all the time. And that’s true even if you’re in a public place. When people are in a public place they recognize people can see what they’re doing – but not that they’re being tracked, that they’re being monitored, watched from place to place as they move about their lives.

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