Privacy advocates are growing increasingly worried that a system meant to identify illegal immigrants will morph into a Big Brother-style high-tech ID database of all Americans.
This "is part of a historical pattern in our country: We erode the civil and privacy rights of the most disadvantaged thinking there will be less push back," says Angela Chan, an attorney with San Francisco civil rights organization the Asian Law Caucus. "The next thing you know, though, those same rights are then taken away from all of us."
At issue is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Secure Communities program, which involves the FBI sharing fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security in keeping with a post-September 11 congressional mandate for data sharing among agencies charged with stopping terrorism. The program makes sense to proponents of illegal immigration control, but some privacy advocates are worried this is only the first step toward a comingling of personal information of everybody in the United States.
A joint FBI-DHS PowerPoint presentation—provided to Whispers by groups involved in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against DHS—indicates Secure Communities is a test case for a larger FBI biometric database initiative called "Next Generation Identification," or NGI. It is being built to replace the FBI's current fingerprint database with more robust records like palm prints, photos of tattoos and scars, iris scans, and facial imaging. [See a gallery of immigration cartoons.]
Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, worries about a lack of transparency and oversight in implementing such a broad database. "It's not just about what it is that is private," Coney says. "It's the rules that are out there to protect the individual and the society from abuse and misuse of that information. We just don't have that."