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‘Extreme Vetting’ | The Trump Administration’s Endless Privacy Infringements

Julia Szczesna

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Privacy

Julia Szczesna, political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, highlights concerns over the US Government’s attitude toward migrant privacy rights.

In a year where a united front is needed by the entire globe, the US Government seems intent on ramping up his attacks against the civil rights and liberty of migrants by increasing government access to their private information.

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed broke the news that the Trump administration plans to extend the biometric data collection of every migrant who aims to stay in the US, through collecting the likes of iris scans, DNA, voiceprints and using facial recognition in addition to the existing requirement of fingerprints, signatures and photographs.

This includes those who have already acquired either a green card or a work permit, meaning that despite following regulations, migrants are treated with contempt – their data privacy and dignity ignored.

Such invasive immigration policies should trigger alarm bells for their implications. The proposed data collection has real potential for being both politicised and weaponised, legally or illegally, with many hacks already focusing on these specific data sets.

Concerning privacy trends

Companies such as Google or Apple already use similar data collection to an extent, so much so that data violation and politically based hacking is starting to become the new normal. The relationships between tech companies and governments are ever-evolving, with the US already pitting tech companies for data extraction.

Even now, ‘social ranking’ data systems are being implemented in countries such as China – a move that the US initially was critical of on privacy grounds. This courtesy, however, is not extended towards potential migrants to the US despite the fact that it is migrants themselves and other at-risk groups which are being exposed to identity theft or fraud due to flawed algorithms.

Data collection is rampant throughout tech companies and governments. However, it is neither regulated nor sufficiently protected from criminal activity despite countless data breaches. This is the case even within the Department of Homeland Security itself, which made headlines after a data breach exposed the personal data of 240,000 of its own employees – how can one expect the same department to safely handle and store the data of those from vulnerable communities?

One major US Government contractor, Cellebrite, openly admits to bypassing passwords to retrieve GPS data from an individual’s digital devices without their permission, boasting that they can “gain access to 3rd party app data, chat conversations, downloaded emails and email attachments, deleted content and more, increasing your chances of finding the incriminating evidence and bringing your case to a resolution”.

Currently in the US, biometric data is only gathered from migrants over the age of 14. However, the Department of Homeland Security aims to remove this age limitation and use DNA data from children to verify familial links. This completely disregards the complexity of family setups and may lead to legitimate non-biological guardians being wrongly detained, questioned without cause and potentially accused of fraud, increasing barriers and furthering the already-criticised child separation policy.

Migrants are burdened with proving themselves against an algorithmic system throughout their immigration process, a fight they simply cannot win.

A 2019 report by Privacy International outlines the issues with governments shirking responsibility and instead opting for ‘technological advancements’ to make life-changing decisions. The use of algorithms has proved highly problematic since these systems are not always able to make a decision without fault.

Not only is the data collected often incomplete – if not incorrect – it also perpetuates pre-existing social inequalities, furthering discriminatory practices rather than correcting them. These algorithms are created by humans who – consciously or not – input their own bias into the coding, meaning the data itself is influenced by those inputting it.

Defending privacy rights

A landmark study which analysed 189 of these systems from 99 separate developers found discrimination was endemic, with racial profiling being one of the most prominent forms. Most reported higher rates of inaccuracy for Asian and African American faces relative to images of white people, often by a factor of ten to one hundred times.

Such inaccuracies have dire consequences on lives. With an individual’s immigration status and legality at stake when these algorithms are used to assess eligibility, there is no room for error.

And since migrants are unable to access the same legal protection as US citizens, this process raises significant human rights concerns as it can leave those who have desperately attempted to find safety returned back to dangerous environments due to system errors.

The implications of this proposed US immigration policy of surveillance are a dangerous prospect that must not be underestimated. Between 2018 and 2019, organisations that have developed artificial intelligence grew from 4% to 14% according to Gartner’s 2019 CIO Agenda Survey.

It is expected that not only its adoption but its abuses will ramp up heavily following 2020. As Dragana Kaurin writes for Digital Freedom Fund: “The overreach of intrusive technologies always starts with the most marginalised, invisible communities before it is normalised and eventually used widely on others.”

As Trump’s presidency draws to a close, fears still remain over the use of technology and expanded data collection of migrants. This determination by the Trump administration should be seen for what it is: divisive exploitation which will inevitably lead to data corruption and theft.

Julia Szczesna

Political Correspondent, Immigration Advice Service

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