DHS officials set for grilling over facial recognition tech

DHS officials set for grilling over facial recognition tech
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Officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are set to testify before a House panel on Wednesday about the government’s use of facial recognition as Congress presses toward legislation curtailing the use of the controversial technology. 

The hearing comes as lawmakers reel over the release of documents showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses state driver’s license databases for facial recognition searches without consent from individuals. 

Though an ICE representative will not be present at the hearing, a House Homeland Security Committee spokesperson told The Hill the tranche of documents – which revealed the government is scanning millions of Americans’ faces without their permission – is likely to come up.

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Representatives with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), agencies within DHS, will face tough questions about how the department is using the technology increasingly across the U.S.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonOvernight Defense: Watchdog to audit company's border wall contract | Pentagon to step up vetting of foreign students after Pensacola | Report finds former defense official sexually harassed staffers Senate bill would give DHS cyber agency subpoena powers Pentagon watchdog to audit North Dakota company's border wall contract MORE (D-Miss.) in a statement said he believes it is “imperative” that such sensitive technologies “only be used for authorized purposes in a fully transparent manner.” 

“Federal agencies – like DHS – must balance their critical security mission with a commitment to safeguard citizens’ civil liberties,” Thompson said. “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.”

Documents released by a top privacy group over the weekend have set off alarm bells for privacy hawks in Congress and outside, providing insight into how ICE and the FBI use state driver’s license databases when searching for suspects in investigations. 

According to records obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and shared with The Hill, ICE has requested facial recognition searches of driver’s license databases in Utah, Vermont, and Washington hundreds of times in total. The queries offer one of the first glimpses into ICE’s use of the controversial biometric tool, which scans people’s faces for the purposes of identifying them. 

Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the Georgetown privacy center, said it’s likely that ICE is running similar searches in other states.

“If ICE is running face recognition searches in these states, ICE may well be searching driver’s license databases across many of the other ten states (and the District of Columbia) that allow undocumented residents to drive,” Rudolph wrote in a blog post, calling the secretive partnership a “serious betrayal of residents’ trust.” 

ICE defended its use of face scanning, saying it tracks with its general approach to prosecution. 

“During the course of an investigation, ICE has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and prosecution efforts,” ICE said in a statement defending the practice. “This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies.” 

It has also been known for some time that the FBI is one of the top federal agencies using facial recognition capabilities, conducting over 4,000 searches on average per month. The FBI has amassed a database of over 640 million photographs, including 36 million mugshot photos, 21 state driver’s license directories and multiple other sources of information.

“You tell me, where are the elected officials who OK'd this?” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDemocrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote Democrats object to Meadows passing note to Jordan from dais Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE (R-Ohio), an increasingly vocal surveillance critic and the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said during an interview with NPR on Tuesday morning. “You have that fundamental concern coupled with the fundamental First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, due process concerns that I think we all share.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said this year they are working to come up with legislative solutions to the rapid rise of facial recognition tech across the country, which they say raises privacy and civil rights concerns. The House Oversight Committee has been at the forefront of the push, holding a series of hearings in which lawmakers on opposite sides of the political spectrum have come together to voice opposition. 

Jordan said his office is currently working with top Democrats “to come up with the right kind of legislation.”

On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee will jump into the debate as members press the witnesses over one of the most controversial government uses of the technology -- its implementation in airports.

Officials with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), agencies within DHS, will testify about their efforts to implement an expansive face scanning program in airports, a plan that has drawn significant ire from Capitol Hill.

Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHouse passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Hillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee, is set to focus on that program, highlighting the "current and potential uses of biometrics to improve security, facilitate travel and enforce our immigration laws," a Rogers spokeswoman told The Hill. Rogers plans to spotlight the improvements CBP has made to its facial recognition program and ask questions about best practices for the technology.

DHS has said it hopes to use facial recognition technology on 97 percent of departing air passengers by 2023, and its face scanning program – dubbed “Biometric Exit” – has been implemented at over a dozen U.S. airports so far.

CBP and TSA are likely to defend the merits of facial recognition technology, which can be used to identify people in the U.S. illegally and speed up the process of getting through the airport. But amid a larger uproar over whether the federal government is overstepping in the technology’s uses, they’re likely to get significant pushback.

“What I hope gets discussed is both the degree to which agencies, especially CBP, have simply really gone ahead using what is in many ways a novel and very dangerous technology without congressional authorization, without getting anyone’s approval,” Jake Laperruque, senior counsel with the Project on Government Insight, told The Hill in a phone interview. 

The various federal agencies use facial recognition technology for different purposes – the FBI and ICE say they only tap their face scanning capabilities during criminal investigations, while CBP and TSA are leading the effort to implement the technology in airports and at the border.

But any legislative solution is likely to rein in all of those uses as public sentiment grows increasingly wary of the technology. 

Top digital rights group Fight for the Future on Tuesday launched a campaign to impose a total federal ban on the government’s use of facial recognition technology, as other privacy groups press for a temporary pause or stricter regulation.

“Our position is that this technology is simply too dangerous to be used for government surveillance,” Fight for the Future said in a statement. “It falls into a category with nuclear and biological weapons, where the potential harms to human society far outweigh any potential benefits. That's why we're calling for an outright ban.” The group asking its supporters to raise their concerns with Congress. 

Jordan during the Tuesday interview said he’s not sure if lawmakers are planning to call for an all-out ban or a pause on the technology. 

“Whether it's an all-out ban or not, I don't know,” Jordan said. “Whether it's a time-out, I don't know. But the good news is we're working together, and this is one of those few areas where we've been able to find some common ground.”

Updated at 10:45 AM.