The Biden administration is abandoning a controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy proposal that would have dramatically expanded the agency’s data collection capabilities. The policy was first tabled under the Trump administration in September, and drew considerable backlash from privacy advocates that objected to its content, and to DHS’s attempt to limit the usual public comment period.
Under the current policy, US customs and immigration officers are only permitted to collect fingerprints, signatures, and photos from immigrants seeking green cards, visas, and (eventually) US citizenship. Those powers are also restricted to adults, preventing officers from capturing biometric data from children under the age of 14.
The new policy would have removed those age restrictions, and given customs agents the authority to collect far more biometric information. Most notably, the agents would have been able to gather the iris, palm, and voiceprints and DNA from immigrants and their US sponsors, giving them unprecedented abilities to collect biometric data from US citizens. The DNA would ostensibly be taken to establish family relationships in those sponsorship cases.
The proposed policy was never officially enacted, and will now be withdrawn without ever becoming a formal standard. Privacy advocates celebrated the decision, but still expressed concern about other, ongoing data collection practices. For example, the Trump administration started collecting the DNA of detainees in custody last April, and the Biden administration has yet to reverse that policy.
“The Biden administration is right to withdraw this DHS proposal, which would have massively expanded the government’s collection of sensitive biometric identifiers out of all proportion to any legitimate need,” said ACLU staff attorney Vera Eidelman. “But it isn’t enough to protect the privacy and dignity of immigrants, their families, and their communities. The Biden administration must also rescind the rule requiring forced DNA collection from individuals in immigration detention.”
The biometric data would have been stored indefinitely in a DHS database, though the DHS has acknowledged that poor security practices have led to breaches in the past. The agency would have been able to collect records from as many as 6 million people on an annual basis, instead of the 3.9 million processed with the existing system.
May 11, 2021 – by Eric Weiss