The Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) has criticized the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for its lack of transparency with regards to biometric technology. The HSAC was set up to advise the department secretary, and has officially approved a draft of a report that makes ten recommendations concerning DHS’s use of biometrics.
The report comes a few months after US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a policy proposal that would dramatically expand the agency’s ability to gather biometric data at the country’s borders. USCIS is part of DHS, and shortened the typical 60-day comment window to 30 days, which gave the public far less time to scrutinize the 330-page legal document.
Despite the truncated window, the policy drew intense criticism (and more than 5,000 comments) from the public and from watchdogs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Now HSAC is arguing that the controversy is illustrative of wider problems within DHS, insofar as the USCIS did not do a good job of communicating the policy to lawmakers, the public, and the broader DHS hierarchy.
In this particular instance, the HSAC learned about the proposal via a news report because the USCIS never sent a copy to the subcommittee. However, it is one of several such incidents in the past few years, in which DHS leadership has not been informed of a policy change and has been caught off-guard by the actions of one of its departments. For example, the Government Accountability Office recently completed an audit that detailed communication failures during the rollout of Customs and Border Protection’s biometric exit program.
With that in mind, the HSAC is advising DHS to introduce a Biometrics Oversight and Coordination Council to evaluate proposed uses of biometric technology. Agencies that wish to use a new technology, or use an existing technology in a new way, would need to submit two plans to the Council. One would explain how the technology will be used, and the other would explain how the agency plans to communicate the policy and perform outreach with the public. The Council would then review the plans before the deputy secretary offers final approval.
The recommendation would allow DHS to address issues internally, and to coordinate messaging before new policies get pushed to the public. The HSAC also recommended that DHS update its 2015 biometrics strategy document, and that the document should be revisited every five years to address new technologies like facial recognition.
November 16, 2020 – by Eric Weiss