FBI Pushes Secure Communities as Part of Massive Biometric Collection Program

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Last year the Dept. of Homeland Security led local government officials to believe that they could opt out of the Secure Communities program if they felt it didn’t work for local law enforcement. Then inexplicably the federal government changed its mind.

We now know why. Turns out the FBI is pushing the program behind the scenes to collect biometric information on both citizens and non-citizens, according to government documents obtained by a coalition of civil rights and legal advocacy groups.

Secure Communities, which is now in every county in Texas, allows federal officers to run fingerprints through various databases after individuals are arrested – even if the charges are minor or are later dismissed. The program is promoted as a way to determine U.S. citizenship status after someone is arrested but it’s also a key part of a little-known FBI project called the ‘Next Generation Identification’ (NGI) project to accumulate biometric information on both citizens and non-citizens.

According to the documents, Secure Communities is “only the first of a number of biometric interoperability systems being brought online by the FBI… 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, reports the The National Day Laborer Organization (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law which filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the documents.

Jessica Karp of the nonprofit National Day Laborer Organization called the NGI program “the next generation Big Brother.” She went on to explain “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 federal government has also been collecting biometric information using iris-scanning technology. Last October, I wrote a post about a Homeland Security pilot project to use the technology along the Texas-Mexico border to collect biometric information from detained immigrants. Iris-scanning has been used extensively by the U.S. military overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently, three states pulled out of Secure Communities, despite the federal government saying the program is now mandatory, because they claimed the majority of people being deported were jailed on misdemeanors among other complaints. According to documents, the FBI pushed for the program to be mandatory despite its own concerns that it “goes against privacy and civil liberties.”

Adding further insult to injury for local governments that have struggled to implement the federal program, the FBI chose to make Secure Communities mandatory not because of some compelling legal or public safety argument but for “record linking/maintenance purposes,” according to the documents.

Bridget Kessler of the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic said the documents reveal that the FBI was more focused on making its NGI program work than on the needs of local law enforcement: “… 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.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.