Advocacy update

Justice Initiative Expresses Concern over Trump Administration Proposal to Expand Biometric Surveillance on Immigrants, U.S. Citizens

October 13, 2020
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The Open Society Justice Initiative is joining human rights groups and immigration groups from across the country in expressing concern over a Trump administration proposal to expand the use of invasive data collection in the United States, which could lead continuous surveillance of immigrants and their families.

On September 11, the Trump administration issued a proposed rule that would authorize the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase biometrics collection for all immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members on an ongoing basis. The rule would radically expand the type of biometric data that DHS is authorized to collect, including controversial modalities, such as iris scans, facial recognition, and DNA collection. 

The biometric data would be stored in the DHS’ current database, Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). IDENT is currently transitioning to a more invasive system with broader capabilities, called the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART). This rule authorizes the collection of sensitive biometric data that will enable dragnet searches in HART covering an ever-growing number of citizens, immigrants, and foreign nationals whose information is swept into the system through a web of intelligence-sharing agreements. DHS has proposed the biometrics rule before the new biometrics features of HART have even undergone a required privacy impact assessment.

In the Justice Initiative’s template comment, developed jointly with Amnesty International USA and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), the organizations expressed deep concern that DHS will not verify the data that feeds into HART through the other databases, which risks misidentification or failure of verification of individuals. The template comment can be used by other authors to provide individual comments that reflect the wide-ranging risks to human rights associated with the proposed rule.

If approved as is, the rule will enable the U.S. government to collect extremely sensitive biometric data including DNA from citizens and noncitizens, and to store it virtually indefinitely. These capacities, combined with the web of other personal data feeding into HART, exponentially increase DHS’ ability to target specific groups or individuals and chill freedom of expression and assembly. 

Public comments on the proposed rule are due today, October 13, and the administration is required to consider every individual comment prior to issuing a final rule.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has provided legal support to civil society groups who have challenged a similar biometrics data system in Kenya, called the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS). In January, a Kenyan court struck down mass DNA collection, calling it unconstitutional and a privacy violation.

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