WASHINGTON - Immigration rights groups allege documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation show that the controversial Secure Communities deportation program (S-Comm), designed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target people for deportation, is also a key component of a little-known FBI project to accumulate a massive store of personal biometric information on citizens and non-citizens alike.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic say the documents show S-Comm is “only the first of a number of biometric interoperability systems being brought online by the FBI ‘Next Generation Identification’ (NGI) project.” NGI will expand the FBI’s existing fingerprint database to add iris scans, palm prints, and facial recognition information for a wide range of people.
Jessica Karp of NDLON explained: “NGI is the next generation Big Brother. It’s a backdoor route to a national ID, to be carried not in a wallet, but within the body itself. The FBI’s biometric-based project is vulnerable to hackers and national security breaches and carries serious risks of identity theft. If your biometric identity is stolen or corrupted in NGI, it will be hard to fix. Unlike an identity card or pin code, biometrics are forever.”
The misrepresentations ICE used to sell S-Comm to states have been well documented and are currently the subject of a DHS Office of the Inspector General investigation. But to date, the FBI’s role in S-Comm has not been scrutinized, although the FBI has come under fire recently for adopting new, generalized policies that permit intrusive, suspicionless surveillance without adequate oversight.
Said Bridget Kessler of the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic: “These documents provide a fascinating glimpse into the FBI’s role in forcing S-Comm on states and localities. The FBI’s desire to pave the way for the rest of the NGI project seems to have been a driving force in the policy decision to make S-Comm mandatory. But the documents also confirm that, both technologically and legally, S-Comm could have been voluntary.”
Although the documents obtained raise many more questions than answers about the FBI’s involvement in S-Comm and S-Comm’s place in the broader NGI project, they do reveal the following key facts:
The CJIS Advisory Board, which oversees the FBI’s criminal databases, passed a motion in June 2009 to recommend that the FBI convert S-Comm from a voluntary to a mandatory program at the local level. At that time – and as much as one year later – ICE was still representing S-Comm as voluntary to state and local officials.
The FBI’s decision to support mandatory imposition of S-Comm was not driven by any legal mandate. In fact, the FBI considered making S-Comm voluntary, showing that it viewed opting out as both a technological possibility and a lawful option. The FBI chose the mandatory route not because of a statutory requirement, but for “record linking/maintenance purposes.” In focusing on mundane record-keeping issues, the agency failed to weigh any of the considerations that have driven states and localities across the country to withdraw from S-Comm, including the program’s impact on community policing, its association with an increased risk of racial profiling, and its failure to comply with its announced purpose of targeting dangerous criminals.
Both FBI and immigration officials have raised concerns internally that aspects of S-Comm may interfere with privacy and invade civil liberties. Notes from one meeting, for example, state that S-Comm “goes against privacy and civil liberties.” In another series of emails, FBI officials raised concerns that state and local users of the FBI databases would be surprised to learn that the FBI was using their data to perform searches that the users had neither requested nor authorized.
DHS may be using S-Comm to gather and store data about U.S. citizens, too. One of the newly obtained documents indicates that US-VISIT, a component of DHS may have considered storing certain information about individuals in violation of their own internal requirements and privacy laws. This may include the retention of data about the lawful activities of even natural-born U.S. citizens.
Said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez, “These revelations should disturb us on multiple levels: the lies, the shadowy role of the FBI, the threats to citizens and non-citizens alike, and the rampant potential violations of civil liberties. This goes far beyond the irreparable S-Comm program and opens a window onto the dystopian future our government has planned. With so much at stake, this process must at all costs be transparent going forward.”