Advisory Committee Recommends DHS Perform Better Outreach Regarding Biometrics Programs

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The Homeland Security Advisory Council also said its request to review a controversial biometrics rule was never fulfilled.

The Homeland Security Department needs to improve its process for approving new or novel uses of biometric technologies, according to a committee that advises the secretary. 

The Homeland Security Advisory Council, or HSAC, voted Thursday to approve a draft report making ten recommendations related to how DHS uses biometric technologies such as facial recognition and fingerprint scans. Council members approved the report two months after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a proposed rule that generated public criticism of DHS’s use of biometrics. 

The council’s top recommendation calls for the creation of a Biometrics Oversight and Coordination Council tasked with assessing how DHS components use biometric tools and policies. 

“Per our recommendations an operational agency proposing a new use of biometric or a novel use of an existing biometric would submit two plans to this council, an implementation plan and a communication or outreach plan,” Robert Bonner, a HSAC member who served as the first commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said during the public portion of Thursday’s meeting. “The council would review, discuss and vet the plans and ultimately, the deputy secretary would approve or concur before a full rollout of a new biometric or a new use of an existing biometric.”

Though DHS components appear to comply with notice requirements such as Privacy Impact Assessments and Systems of Records Notices, Bonner said, the HSAC subcommittee focused on biometrics determined DHS doesn’t always develop and execute appropriate communications and outreach plans when it wants to implement new biometric capabilities. 

“For instance, the rollout of biometric exit by CBP, which was, and I think the subcommittee would say is, a good and creative solution to biometric exit, yet was roundly criticized in the media and on the hill,” Bonner said. “The lesson learned is, we believe, the importance of a detailed communication plan to address potential concerns prior to launch.”

DHS components including CBP and USCIS have been criticized for lack of clear communication regarding biometrics recently. In September, the Government Accountability Office released an audit outlining failures by CBP to provide adequate notice informing travelers about the use of its Traveler Verification Service via signage at ports, website information and CBP call center assistance. 

Lack of communication around using TVS for exit at ports appears to have frustrated DHS leadership, according to the report.

“The push back in Congress and elsewhere against CBP’s biometric exit solution appears to have caused consternation at the departmental level of DHS, with some thinking that CBP caught them off guard. What is clear is that the leadership of DHS and the DHS Policy Office may not have been as aware of the details of the biometric exit program as they would have liked,” the report reads. “This internal misalignment and the fact that after the program rolled out CBP spent many hours explaining the program to Congress, the media and interested NGOs, reinforces the need for a communication and outreach plan at the front end before implementing a new biometric solution.”

USCIS’s proposed rule has generated similar push back from the public. The rule, which spans close to 330 pages, garnered more than 5,000 comments. Many of those comments criticized USCIS for capping the comments period at 30 days. The shortened time period—the public is usually granted 60 days to comment—and the complexity of the rule, compounded by the burden of the ongoing public health crisis, meant that the public hasn’t had enough time to evaluate the rule, according to several of the comments. 

A group of five Democratic senators made this point in a letter sent to DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf in October. The senators in the letter also described the proposed rule as an “unacceptable escalation of government surveillance.” 

While the committee didn’t evaluate the merits of the USCIS proposed rule because it was released after HSAC completed it’s fact-finding phase, the report does discuss it briefly.

“Despite the Subcommittees’ request that it be provided a copy of any proposed rule relating to biometrics, none were furnished,” the report reads. “Indeed, the Subcommittee learned about the pending Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) from a news story published a few days prior to the NPRM’s publication.”

The report goes on to say HSAC was not given the opportunity to consult with DHS components on the rule and its impact. 

Other HSAC recommendations call for each operational agency within DHS to designate a dedicated official overseeing agency biometrics programs as well as update DHS’s 2015 biometrics strategy document to account for use of newer technologies like facial recognition. DHS should update the framework every five years, the report recommends.