The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been discreetly gathering the biometric information of tens of thousands of refugees, many of whom may never make it to America. According to a recent Privacy Impact Assessment, the information is being collected through a sharing arrangement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which sends profiles to federal agencies when referring refugees for resettlement.
The profiles include biographic information like name and date of birth, in addition to face, fingerprint, and iris data. Those profiles are then vetted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which accepted less than a quarter of the nearly 85,000 UNHCR referrals in 2018.
The catch is that DHS is allowed to keep the biometric information of the tens of thousands of refugees who are not admitted to the country, storing the data on Homeland Security’s IDENT database. That database is shared with a number of federal agencies, including the Defense and Justice departments, which is highly concerning to privacy advocates who worry that refugees may not be able to give proper consent to the collection of their information.
“A centralized database of biometric data belonging to refugees, without appropriate controls, could lead to surveillance of those refugees as well as potentially coercive forms of scrutiny,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Amos Toh.
Biometric registration has become an integral part of the UNCHR’s refugee policies, allowing the organization to promote inclusion and create official IDs for people without paper documents. However, Toh’s comments suggest that biometric registration could potentially be used for exclusion, as well, raising more objections to the DHS’s unsupervised use of biometric data.
August 23, 2019 – by Eric Weiss