The US is planning to give up its citizens’ most precious data in exchange for the biometric data harvested by its “partner” governments in Europe and beyond.
The Biden Administration is currently making an offer to dozens of governments in Europe and beyond that they probably will not be able to refuse. On offer is access to vast reams of sensitive data on US citizens held by the Department of Homeland Security. It includes the IDENT/HART database, which the British civil rights organization Statewatch describes as “the largest U.S. Government biometric database and the second largest biometric database in the world, containing over 270 million identities from over 40 U.S. agencies.”
Biometric identifiers include fingerprints, facial features and other physiological characteristics that can be used for automated identification. In some cases, these identifiers have been harvested by the US government without the consent of the citizens in question (more on that later).
The data-sharing arrangement is being offered to all 40 countries selected for the US government’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP). That means their citizens can travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. They include all 27 EU Member States, three of the US’ four fellow members of the Five Eye Alliance (United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia), Japan and South Korea.
A Kafkaesque Nightmare
Of course, the US government is not offering to share the biometric data of 270 million of its citizens out of pure selfless altruism. It wants something in return — namely the biometric data of the citizens of its partner states:
“In turn, DHS may submit biometrics to IBIS partner countries to search against their biometric identity management systems in order for partner countries to provide DHS with sharable biographic, derogatory, and encounter information when a U.S. search matches their biometric records. This high-volume matching and data exchange is accomplished within minutes and is fully automated; match confirmation and supporting data is exchanged with no officer intervention.”
The emphasis in the last sentence was added by Statewatch, for good reason. In the fully digitised world that is fast taking shape around us, many of the decisions or actions taken by local, regional or national authorities that affect us will be fully automated; no human intervention will be needed. That means that trying to get those decisions or actions reversed or overturned is likely to be a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Statewatch has obtained an internal US government document titled “DHS International Biometric Information Sharing (IBIS) Program” and with the sub-heading “Enhanced Biometric Security Partnership (EBSP),” which, as Statewatch notes, is essentially a sales pitch to potential “foreign partners”:
The IBIS Program, it states, provides “a scalable, reliable, and rapid bilateral biometric and biographic information sharing capability to support border security and immigration vetting,” which:
“…creates value for the United States and its partners by detecting fraud, identifying transnational criminals, sex offenders who have been removed from the United States, smugglers of humans and narcotics, gang members, terrorists and terrorist-related information, and the travel patterns of criminals.”
The US government will also gain access to the biometric data of untold millions of law-abiding civilians of VWP countries who, like untold millions of law-abiding citizens in the US, have been caught up in their respective government’s biometric data dragnet. At least 600 law-enforcement agencies in the U.S., including ICE, have used the services of US company Clearview, which sells facial recognition tools to governments and companies after scraping the photos of hundreds of millions of people from social media platforms without their consent.
Clearview has already faced fines and bans in Britain, Canada, France, Australia and Italy, and the company faces multiple law suits in the US. Yet if the IBIS Program goes ahead, the governments of those countries will be given access to huge troves of biometric data of US citizens that US government agencies acquired from that company.
A Privacy Nightmare
Privacy campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic are rightly concerned about the potential implications of the IBIS Program, especially given the US’ much laxer approach to data protection. After a meeting of European Parliament civil liberties committee members with the DHS, Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer described the new U.S. policy as “blackmail” and urged the European Commission to reject the demand:
“Millions of innocent Europeans are listed in police databases and could be exposed to completely disproportionate reactions in the USA. The US lacks adequate data and fundamental rights protection. Providing personal data to the US exposes our citizens, i.e. to the risk of arbitrary detention and false suspicion, with possible dire consequences, in the course of the US “war on terror”. We must protect our citizens from these practices.”
As I noted in my April article, “Biometric Surveillance Systems Are Being Hastily Rolled Out Across the West, With Next to No Public Debate,” the problem is not just about privacy; it is about the inherent flaws within biometric systems, including facial recognition:
The systems are notoriously inaccurate on women and those with darker skin, and may also be inaccurate on children whose facial features change rapidly.
There are also concerns about who the data will end up being shared with or managed by and just how safe it will be in their hands. In December 2021, the civil liberties group Statewatch reported that the Council of the EU, where the senior ministers of the 27 Member States sit, not only intends to extend the purposes for which biometric systems can be used under the EU’s proposed Artificial Intelligence Act but is also seeking to allow private actors to operate mass biometric surveillance systems on behalf of police forces.
In February Statewatch published another report titled “Building the Biometric State: Police Powers and Discrimination.” In it the group warned that the EU’s rapid expansion of biometric profiling at borders and identity checks within the 27-member bloc risk is likely to lead to increased racial profiling of ethnic minority citizens and non-citizens.
UK and Israel Already on Board
News about the Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP) surfaced last month after it was revealed that the DHS was approaching EU member state governments directly, effectively cutting out the European Commission. Like so many of these kinds of schemes, participation is initially on a voluntary basis, but from 2027 it will become mandatory under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). In other words, if countries want their citizens to continue enjoying visa-free travel to the US, they will have to provide US authorities with access to their citizens’ biometric data…
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