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Homeland Security One Step Closer to Becoming Big Brother Incarnate

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) has taken a giant leap toward achieving its apparent goal of knowing everything about everyone: the development and launch of the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (“HART”) database. The database allows DHS to organize and correlate multiple biometric identifiers, including human faces—with “other modalities,” such as biographical information, “relationship patterns” and information obtained by law enforcement officers during “encounters” with citizens.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”), the database will be shared with other federal agencies, state and local law enforcement groups, and even foreign governments.

If this all sounds slightly alarming, it should. DHS already has a fingerprint database containing information on 220 million individuals and processes 350,000 fingerprint transactions every day. The EFF says that all told, the agency manages over 10 billion biographic records. Ten to 15 million more are added each week.

The data being collected in the HART database is “especially concerning,” according to the privacy rights organization. Biometric data, most notably faces, are being vacuumed up by federal agents at an alarming rate. Agents from both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) scan and capture face data of everyone with whom they come into contact. And by “everyone,” the EFF means exactly that: According to its June 7, 2018 report, faces are grabbed regardless of whether the accosted individual is suspected of a crime or an immigration violation.

“When combined with data from other government agencies, these troubling collection practices will allow DHS to build a database large enough to identify and track all people in public places, without their knowledge—not just in places the agency oversees, like airports, but anywhere there are cameras,” said the report.

If that’s not scary enough, consider that DHS plans to include “records related to the analysis of relationship patterns among individuals” in the HART database. While DHS has not made clear where such data will be obtained, the EFF suspects that social media will be the first place that the G-Men will look to gather relationship data. Such data, said the EFF report, will likely be “misleading or inaccurate.” This is problematic for a variety of reasons, prime among them the fact that HART data will be used to inform an officer’s decision to stop, search, and arrest people.

The HART database also will include officer “encounter data.” This data will include information obtained by an officer in any way. Because officer “encounters” are frequently not based on suspicion of criminal activity or wrongdoing, compiling and organizing data from such encounters for use in future criminal investigations or prosecutions is constitutionally suspect.

The EFF report concludes that “DHS’s plans for future data collection and use should make us all very worried,” and called for Congressional intervention. Congress has never authorized such broad-scale collection of facial recognition data, and it seems highly unlikely that it would. Moreover, DHS “has a well-documented history of poor data management.”

“Congress must step in with more oversight and act now to put the brakes on DHS’s broad expansion of data collection,” the report said. 


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