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Why Is the Government Collecting Your Biometric Data?

EFF's Jennifer Lynch discusses the expansion of biometric data collection, the growth of databases and the impact on increased surveillance.

The next time you get pulled over, watch for a blocky, black gadget attached to the officer's iPhone. That's the MORIS device, one of many mobile fingerprint and biometric scanners proliferating in police departments around the country. MORIS is designed to ascertain identity and dig up an unsavory past, but that's not all: the device can also gather iris scans, fingerprints, and photos searchable with face recognition technology. 

Mobile scanners like MORIS are just one of the many ways biometric data (unique, identifying physical features including fingerprints, DNA or iris scans) is collected and potentially fed into government and private biometric databases that have swelled in both size and sophistication in the decade after 9/11. 

The Department of Justice is expanding its fingerprint database to include iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, scars, tattoos, and measures of voice and gait. The DoD collects iris scans, prints and face recognition photos from anyone coming in and out of Afghanistan; Department of Homeland Security gathers face recognition photos and fingerprints from people entering the U.S. Even motor vehicle departments in many states use face recognition technology to ID people when they get their licenses, and they tend to be cooperative with criminal investigations. The big agencies are also increasingly making their databases interoperable, so an immigrant's print that lands in the DHS database (IDENT) can be accessed by the FBI. Information is also shared with foreign governments and private companies.

In a recent EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) report, Jennifer Lynch chronicles the growth of biometric databases that contain everything from fingerprints to DNA to iris scans and face recognition images. Unsurprisingly, immigrants are one of the likeliest targets; Lynch talks about the LAPD's habit of cruising streets where day laborers gather and picking up their fingerprints with mobile scanners. The Secure Communities program, a more large-scale and catastrophic example, lets police send fingerprints to the FBI, which can share the information with DHS, which then deploys ICE to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

AlterNet spoke with Lynch about the expansion of biometric data collection, the growth of databases and the impact on increased surveillance on citizens and immigrants alike.

Tana Ganeva: The scope of this data collection is so overwhelming. What are they trying to collect and why?

Jennifer Lynch: I totally agree that the scope of data collection is overwhelming. There's just so much that the federal government collects at this point. And there's so much data sharing going on between agencies, so many points of interaction with the government where data is collected. The data is pretty massive at this point. 

Some of the key places the government collects data are at any kind of border crossing, if you're not a US citizen -- or what they call a "non-US person" -- or if you interact with the criminal justice system. And those are the two main ways that your data can be collected by the government. 

TG: By "interact" with the criminal justice system, you don't mean just a conviction, but any encounter with police, like getting pulled over, right? You don't actually have to be guilty of something?

JL: Yes, any sort of arrest, and at this point, it could be as minimal as being stopped for a moving violation, because lots of police officers carry mobile fingerprint scanners. As I talked about in the report, even if you're just standing in the street corner in Los Angeles, trying to get a job, you can get your fingerprints scanned. So there are a number of ways even just the common citizen could have their fingerprints collected by the federal government. 

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