The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been collecting biometric information for months on refugees who are referred for resettlement — retaining the data even if they never enter the country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees every year sends profiles on refugees for potential resettlement to federal agencies, according to a report Wednesday by Defense One.
The agencies use the information to determine which refugees may enter the United States. The data include names, birthdates and countries of origin.
However, "as of late" the information includes biometric data, Defense One reports.
In January, the United Nations agency contracted with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to share fingerprints, iris scans, face images and other biometric data on the refugees referred for resettlement.
According to Defense One, the agency said the data will help U.S. officials better identify and vet potential refugees.
"Biometric verification guards against substitution of individuals or identity fraud in the resettlement process," USCIS officials said in a privacy impact assessment for the program.
"Many refugees live for long periods in asylum countries, and the use of biometrics ensures that there is [an] unbroken continuity of identity over time and between different locations."
But the program also could trap people in the vast web of biometric data-sharing agreements with federal law-enforcement agencies that have come under sharp attack in recent months — and USCIS could build biometric profiles on people who never enter the country, Defense One reported.
Individuals might drop out of the refugee resettlement process for many reasons, yet Immigration Services "may in those cases continue to hold biometrics on individuals it may not encounter," according to the privacy statement.
United Nations data cited by Defense One showed that fewer than a quarter of the nearly 85,000 cases reviewed by USCIS last year led to refugees being admitted to the U.S.
The agency rejected 33,485 referrals and closed 30,438 more cases for unspecified reasons.
Under the new program, however, USCIS can still maintain biometric profiles on those individuals, Defense One reports.
In addition, Homeland Security can share that data with other federal agencies "tasked with national security and counterterrorism responsibilities," according to the privacy statement.
But some privacy advocates were alarmed at the potential abuses of such an extensive database, Defense One reports.
"A centralized database of biometric data belonging to refugees, without appropriate controls, could really lead to surveillance of those refugees as well as potentially coercive forms of scrutiny," Amos Toh, an artificial intelligence researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Nextgov.com.
"There needs to be a lot more clarity on how this data is being shared and is being used."
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