Recently, we expressed concern about the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) testing iris-scanning technology on immigrants detained at the border. Since posting that entry, the Center for Media and Democracy has obtained a copy of the DHS “Privacy Impact Assessment” for the technology’s test run, and we are now even more concerned that DHS has not adequately considered this technology's serious implications for privacy and civil liberties.
The border patrol's test of this iris scanning technology caught our attention for two reasons. First, DHS has been given access to enormous funds to fulfill its politically expedient mandate to “secure the borders, ” without requiring that the agency carefully balance the funds expended against their potential effectiveness and impact on civil liberties. Second, by testing new technologies on immigrants who lack both a voice and a vote, DHS may reduce the risk of being called out for violating civil liberties, allowing elements of the surveillance state to slowly creep into America. People who have just been caught crossing the border are likely too tired, hungry, and dismayed to raise ire about civil liberties violations; and besides, they cannot vote anyway.
Both of our concerns have been borne out by the Privacy Impact Assessment.
The Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) describes how the border patrol in McAllen, Texas will be using the iris-scanning technology to determine its “operational effectiveness” in an “operational setting.” The PIA states that there is no privacy risk associated with the iris scans, as the data collected will be stored in a “standalone system” separate from other DHS networks, and will not be used for other purposes or disseminated to other agencies. The iris images collected in this test run will be anonymous and not linked to the subject’s identity. They will only be used for “quality control,” to evaluate the effectiveness of the scanning technology.
In other words, the PIA completely misses the point.
The privacy and civil liberty concerns related to iris-scanning technology go well beyond those considered in the PIA. DHS should be assessing the privacy implications of the iris-scanning technology itself, not just the privacy impact of the test run.
This is How It Starts...
This is how a surveillance state creeps forward -- through short-term thinking and missing the forest for the trees. The implications of the iris-scanning technology go well beyond this six-week test on the border, but there are no indications that DHS is considering the privacy impact of anything besides this six-week test run.
As for the second concern, the PIA states that “the project is an evaluation of prototype iris camera performance ... and is not considered human subject testing” (emphasis added). First, such a broad, unfounded assertion allows DHS to avoid considering the important privacy implications of this technology. Second, it is questionable whether such a statement would be permissible if this technology were being tested on U.S. citizens, and seems to imply a lesser degree of humanity for the immigrant test subjects.
The PIA also notes that subjects are permitted to opt-out of the iris-collection. Yeah, right. Immigrants who have just been apprehended after a long trek through the hot, dry desert are probably among the least likely populations to decline the testing; in addition, the deportation process is sufficiently terrifying to compel almost anybody to submit to anything DHS requests.
The agency should not be permitted to conduct tests on vulnerable individuals, write off their privacy concerns, and slowly and surreptitiously spend taxpayer money to begin a greater intrusion on civil liberties. The minor privacy intrusion involved in today's test run quickly becomes the major civil liberties violation of tomorrow's implementation. Once DHS has already invested millions of dollars developing and testing the technology, it becomes much more difficult to halt its wider implementation. Money provides momentum.
We are not saying that technologies like iris scanners should never be used. We are saying that DHS needs to be much more careful. DHS must conduct a thorough assessment of the potential impact of technologies like iris-scanners on the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans, then balance these implications against the potential national security benefits. This must be carried out before DHS throws more money towards testing these iris-scanners. It may be politically expedient to slowly implement technology under the cloak of border security, but we cannot allow our country's xenophobic fears to pave the way towards sacrificing our precious civil liberties.