Exclusive: Biden has quietly deployed an app for asylum seekers. Privacy experts are worried

Officials have quietly deployed a mobile app relying on facial recognition technology to collect data on asylum seekers before they cross the border.

6/6/2021 6:00:00 PM

Biden administration officials have quietly deployed a mobile app relying on facial recognition technology to collect data on asylum seekers before they cross the border. Privacy experts are worried.

Officials have quietly deployed a mobile app relying on facial recognition technology to collect data on asylum seekers before they cross the border.

Some immigrants kept waiting across the border by Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy will be allowed to enter the U.S. while awaiting court dates. San Diego began processing them Friday; two Texas sites will follow next week.Chris Boian, a spokesman for UNHCR, declined to comment on the record about how the refugee agency is using the app. But he insisted, “the protection of personal data of persons of concern is absolutely sacrosanct,” including in work with the U.S. government.

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Now, administration officials have expanded the use of CBP One again, to those identified as potentially eligible for exemption from the current COVID-19-era Title 42 policy, under which authorities have expelled migrants without a court date and with negligible processing. That means

,including photographs, from asylum seekers in Mexico before they even arrive at the border.Because undocumented individuals coming to the border often don’t have a travel document that can be used to run security checks, officers generally have to enter their information manually in a time-consuming process, according to CBP. CBP says the app will auto-populate much of the required data, calling it “ headtopics.com

.”AdvertisementRaymundo Tamayo, Mexico director for the International Rescue Committee, one of the main NGOs working with the asylum seekers, said the DHS has described CBP One as one “tool” to “streamline the intake of information” — not to supplant migrants’ right under U.S. law to come to the border directly and claim asylum.

“Seeking asylum is legal — even during a pandemic,” Tamayo said.CBP’s long struggle with facial recognitionSince the ’90s, Congress has mandated a system to track entries and exits from the United States. After 9/11, surveillance efforts by CBP to identify those who overstay visas intensified, from fingerprints and photographs to

, which analyzes a person’s features to verify his or her identity by matching the features to those in another photo.But questions persist about both the ethics andeffectiveness of the technology, particularly when employed by the U.S. government against noncitizens of color.

A federal study in 2019 of over 100 commercially available facial recognition algorithms found that accuracy varied dramatically based on the subject’s race, country of birth, sex and age. The technology was especially unreliable for border-crossing photos, and for images of those from Africa or the Caribbean. headtopics.com

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As of last May, CBP had completed facial recognition pilots on pedestrians at five border crossings in Arizona and Texas. Officerstold the Government Accountability Officethat they’d used facial recognition to verify the identity of 4.4 million border crossers in three months, and found 215 “imposters” — a statistical grain of sand.

There are also long-standing doubts about the agency’s ability to safeguard such data. A 2018 CBP pilot program testing facial recognition on vehicle passengers crossing the border was hacked, and, with at least 19 photos of travelers winding up on the dark web.

Why some criticize CBP One, and others commend itSue Kenney-Pfalzer of HIAS, a nonprofit refugee advocacy group and another main NGO working with expelled asylum seekers, expressed optimism about the new mechanism, saying it could yield less reliance on smugglers and less

time at ports of entry where criminalsprey on vulnerable migrants if the U.S. government tells “pre-vetted” asylum seekers where and when to come. Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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