Facial recognition debate expected to turn toward immigration

WASHINGTON – The facial recognition debate is heating up on Capitol Hill as privacy advocates say it’s time for Congress to demand answers about the scope of the government’s use of the technology, especially when it comes to monitoring immigrants.

The renewed scrutiny follows a report from my The Washington Post over the weekend revealing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are using state drivers’ license photos for facial recognition searches. The findings from researchers at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology are likely to dominate a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday when lawmakers are expected to grill various government officials about how they are using the new technology and whether stricter guardrails need to be put in place.

ICE officials are notably not on Wednesday’s witness list. But slated to show are officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Privacy advocates hope ICE’s absence in light of their recent findings will be the elephant in the room.

“There’s a very good argument that this is the most invasive surveillance technology of the 21st century,” Alvaro Bedoya, the founding director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said. “No one expects this when they go to the DMV.”

Until now, resistance to facial recognition has been a rare spot of bipartisan consensus in Washington, with lawmakers on opposite sides of the political spectrum like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., expressing concerns about the emerging technology. But now with ICE at the center of debate, pervasive partisan fault lines could emerge on the issue and it is likely to become more politicized.

A tweet yesterday previewed how the debate could become become more immigration focused. In response to Drew’s story, Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., who sits on the Homeland Security panel, called the Trump administration “xenophobic” and said use of the technology is evidence of “another way to target immigrants.”

Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chair of the Homeland Security Committee, said it’s time for more transparency and scrutiny of facial recogniton before the government deploys it further. He warned that government’s use of facial recognition “could have far-reaching privacy implications if left unchecked.”

“Federal agencies like DHS must balance their critical security mission with a commitment to safeguard citizens’ civil liberties,” Thompson said in a statement to The Technology 202. “It is imperative these technologies only be used for authorized purposes in a fully transparent manner. Before the government deploys these technologies further, they must be fully scrutinized and the American public needs to be given a chance to weigh in.”

Meanwhile, Mike Rogers of Alabama, the committee’s top Republican, struck a different tone and defended federal law enforcement’s right to use DMV photos.

“DMV photos should be available for law enforcement use,” he said in a statement to the Technology 202. “These public records have long been a basic tool for police work and should be used in our fight against terrorists, criminals and violent international cartels. Congress should focus on making sure DHS and other departments are using the most accurate and effective facial recognition technology available.”

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