Privacy SOS

Immigration bill contains horrible biometric identities tracking database

We’ve been warning for some time about the stealth creation of federal databases containing the biometric identifiers of millions of people, as well as the federal government’s use of state registry of motor vehicle databases as pools from which to harvest driver ID photos at will. 

But a proposal in the new bipartisan immigration bill makes even the FBI’s spooky Next Generation Identification database and its "Project Facemask" seem like 20th century card catalogues. Wired reports:

The immigration reform measure the Senate began debating yesterday would create a national biometric database of virtually every adult in the U.S., in what privacy groups fear could be the first step to a ubiquitous national identification system.

Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation (.pdf)  is language mandating the creation of the innocuously-named “photo tool,” a massive federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.

Employers would be obliged to look up every new hire in the database to verify that they match their photo.

Sounds like an ambitious project that will likely cost a lot of money, and probably severely impact civil liberties.

But does face recognition even work? At present, not very well, even in highly controlled environments.

A Boston Globe report from 2011 found that face recognition software deployed at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles misidentifies about 1,000 people per year, causing pretty substantial inconvenience for them. Multiple that figure by 50 and you've got a likely figure for misfires if such a system goes federal.

What's the big deal, though? If the registry of motor vehicles denies you a license renewal for a couple weeks while you fix the errors, it's a pain, though clearly not the worst thing in the world.

But what if the inconvenience became something much more serious? What if it meant you — or 50,000 other Americans each year — were denied employment and therefore lost your home to foreclosure, or fell behind on credit card bills and slumped into serious debt? Or worse, if the government started using this DHS biometric system for ‘security’ procedures, what if you were wrongfully arrested or even shot in a botched raid, a tragic case of mistaken identity?

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In fact, advocates warn that, like the social security number, this tool could end up being used to track us in ways the creators of this supposedly 'immigration-related' system never intended.


This piece of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is aimed at curbing employment of undocumented immigrants. But privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet. Think of it as a government version of Foursquare, with Big Brother cataloging every check-in.

“It starts to change the relationship between the citizen and state, you do have to get permission to do things,” said Chris Calabrese, a congressional lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “More fundamentally, it could be the start of keeping a record of all things.”

For now, the legislation allows the database to be used solely for employment purposes. But historically such limitations don’t last. The Social Security card, for example, was created to track your government retirement benefits. Now you need it to purchase health insurance.

An analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute told Wired that the proposed tracking system would be “like a national ID system without the card.”

No thanks. 

The biometrics industry, meanwhile, is licking its chops. Analysts predict that the business will be worth $10 billion per year by 2018. The future beckons, and it’s looking more and more like Minority Report every day.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.