In an unprecedented move, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing a new rule that would allow the federal government to retain people's biometric information. The Trump administration argues that biometric data like iris scans, voice recordings, fingerprints, and photographs will be requested to screen applicants and keep families together.
But the collection, use, and storage of biometric data concerns many privacy and civil rights experts — not to mention the fact that people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. are particularly vulnerable to governmental data collection experiments. "Collecting a massive database of genetic blueprints won’t make us safer," said Andrea Flores, the deputy director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It will simply make it easier for the government to surveil and target our communities and to bring us closer to a dystopian nightmare."
According to BuzzFeed News, which first reported on the plans for biometric data collection, the rule would only apply to those who are in the process of becoming citizens, such as immigrants with a green card, work permit, or other kind of visa. While the rule states that the government would be able to request as much biometric data as it wants, it doesn't outline what will happen if someone refuses to give their bodily data. Moreover, the rule does not mention what will happen to the data if and when a person does become a citizen.
"This proposed rule eliminates any ambiguity surrounding the department’s use of biometrics, setting clear standards for how and why we collect and use this information," said Ken Cuccinelli, the deputy secretary of homeland security. "Leveraging readily available technology to verify the identity of an individual we are screening is responsible governing. The collection of biometric information also guards against identity theft and thwarts fraudsters who are not who they claim to be."
While the intention may be to cut down on "fraud," opponents of the rule say that the the biometric data collection will just delay and confuse the process of immigration further. It's unclear how many migrants are "not who they claim to be," if any.
Despite the Trump administration's history of intentionally separating children from their parents at the border, this rule claims that biometric data will help to curb that practice. "The proposed rule improves the screening and vetting process and reduces our dependence on paper documents and biographic information to prove identity and familial relationships," a release about the proposed rule reads.
Even then, the government maintains that collecting the biometric data is for the wellbeing of children. "By using DNA or DNA tests to establish bona fide genetic relationship between adults and minors in DHS custody, DHS can better protect the wellbeing of children," per the release. Still, it's unclear how collecting biometric data will actually prevent family separation; previous immigration policy required that migrants state their familial relationship with someone, without necessarily having to prove it, and that didn't stop the government from separating families.
In 2016 it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had begun collecting eye scans and sharing the data with a number of governmental agencies, including Customs and Border Patrol. Like with the DHS announcement to collect biometric data from non-citizens, the FBI was reluctant to say how the information would be used, why the government needed it, how it would be protected from hackers, and exactly how much data it had collected. This latest release is another entry in the federal government's history of running clandestine biometric data collection operations for supposed security or public safety reasons.
As one former Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official told BuzzFeed News, "It is stunning. They’re using what is overly general language in the law to justify a massive, unprecedented expansion to collect really personal information that they appear to plan to keep and use in perpetuity. What is the reason for this? What is the problem they are trying to solve?"