The Department of Homeland Security should have a high-level entity responsible for coordinating and overseeing department-wide uses of biometrics to better leverage capabilities and improve outreach, particularly around privacy concerns, says a new report from an advisory council to the department.
The report calls for a Biometrics Oversight and Coordination Council (BOCC) to be chaired by the deputy secretary of DHS with membership consisting of operational components and relevant support offices “with a key focus on proposed uses of new biometrics and novel uses of existing biometrics,” says the report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Biometrics Subcommittee.
High level oversight of biometric uses and needs within DHS could solve a number of problems for the department, including internal and external awareness, says the report. The subcommittee is chaired by Robert Bonner, a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection during the administration of George W. Bush, with Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney with the law firm of Holland & Knight, serving as vice chair.
For example, the report highlights Customs and Border Protection’s rollout of facial recognition (FR) technology under a congressional mandate for a biometric-based program to better verify foreign nationals have departed the U.S. in accordance with visa requirements. It calls CBP’s solution “creative and good,” adding that the matching algorithm used is accurate and that the agency has taken “significant steps” to ensure privacy protections.
However, because the biometric exit program includes U.S. citizens—who may opt out—Congress and civil liberties groups have raised concerns, the report says.
“Much of the concern, based on our investigation, stems from misconceptions of how CBP is using FR for biometric exit,” says the subcommittee’s report, which was approved by the HSAC on Thursday for consideration by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. “The push back in Congress and elsewhere against CBP’s biometric exit solution appears to have caused consternation at the departmental level of DHS, with some thinking that CBP caught them off guard.”
The report says that after the program was rolled out, CBP had to spend “many hours explaining the program to Congress, the media and interested NGOs,” showing the need for an upfront outreach plan before a biometric solution goes operational.
The subcommittee also recommends that DHS still be able to rapidly conduct pilot evaluations of, or respond to emergency situations using, biometric-based systems without having to navigate additional “bureaucratic hoops.” The BOCC would not have to be convened in these instances, it says.
The subcommittee was tasked to examine processes related to the use and coordination of biometrics, not with evaluating specific modalities.
In addition to the CBP, the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services all use various biometrics to carry out portions of their missions.