With growing collection and databasing of ‘biometrics’ by government come growing concerns about privacy

By SB Anderson

Could “biometrics” — the electronic collection of fingerprints, iris scans, blood samples and photographs in public places — replace the Social Security number as a primary identifier? That’s a possibility, a new report warns, and the privacy implications are significant. 

“The rapid expansion of programs that collect, store, and share biometric data has raised important concerns over privacy and data accuracy for citizens and non‐citizens alike,” the Immigration Policy Center says in a new report, “From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities and Beyond.” (Full Report | Summary Report)

“If biometrics become standardized, they could replace social security numbers as the primary form of identification. The next time someone applies for insurance, sees her doctor, or fills out an apartment rental application, she could be asked for her thumbprint or iris scan. Data standardization also increases the ability of government or private companies to locate and track a given person throughout their lives. “

Privacy becomes a much more significant issue as government agencies begin sharing their biometric data, the report says.

“As a result of data sharing between agencies, biometric data collected for non‐criminal purposes, such as immigration‐related records, are combined with and used for criminal or national‐security purposes with little to no standards, oversight, or transparency.

“When some of this data comes from sources such as local fusion centers and private security guards in the form of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), it can perpetuate racially motivated targeting of immigrant communities. The addition of crowd and security camera photographs means that anyone could end up in the database—even if they’re not involved in a crime—by just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

How much data is collected? According to the report:

  • DHS collects approximately 300,000 fingerprints per day from non‐U.S. citizens crossing U.S. borders
  • The FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint System (IAFIS) and DHS’s Automated biometric Identification System (IDENT) each hold 100+ million records. 
  • The federal government and all 50 states collect DNA, primarily through the criminal justice system. 
  • All 50 states, the federal government and the District of Columbia collect and share DNA records through the FBI’s . .  .large centrally‐managed database that links DNA profiles taken from federal, state, and territorial DNA collection programs. 
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may also begin collecting DNA from others who interact with the agency. New rules . . require DHS to collect DNA from any non‐United States person it detains. DHS estimates this could affect up to 1 million people per year, including juveniles.