The U.S. Government’s Mass Collection of Immigrant DNA Hints at Surveillance Future
The genetic data will be added to an FBI database for violent criminals
This week, the United States government will begin collecting DNA samples from thousands of people detained by immigration officials, including minors, and will add that genetic data to a massive FBI database used to investigate violent crimes, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
First proposed by the Trump administration in October as a way to enforce immigration laws, the effort represents a major expansion of DNA collection in the United States. In 2018, DHS submitted nearly 7,000 DNA samples to the FBI. Under the new program, it expects to hand over an additional 748,000 samples annually. Anyone who is subject to fingerprinting — including U.S. citizens, green card holders, and those held temporarily — could be forced to submit a cheek-swab sample, according to a privacy impact assessment posted Monday by the DHS.
Privacy experts and human rights advocates say that this creates privacy risks for detainees and their families and raises concerns that genetic information could be misused, including for surveillance purposes.
“This really is an unprecedented shift from collecting DNA from people who have been accused of certain types of conduct to those who have a certain type of status,” says Saira Hussain, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group based in San Francisco.
The new program is the latest to broaden the amount of biometric data the government is gathering on immigrants, migrants, and asylum-seekers. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deployed rapid DNA testing of children and their parents along the southern border to crack down on child smuggling and “fake families.” The new program clears a path for DNA collection not just for violent crimes but for less serious ones as well. Currently, DNA is collected in all 50 states for certain felonies, like sexual assaults and homicides, but illegal entry into the U.S. for the first time is a misdemeanor offense. A few states, including New York and Virginia, have moved toward collecting DNA for other misdemeanors. The new DHS program…