DHS leaders mull biometrics, privacy with charmed circle of insiders

Senior Homeland Security Department officials joined their counterparts from foreign governments, other federal agencies, some IT vendors and pressure groups in the domestic and international privacy arena to discuss privacy policies and biometric technology at a conference in Washington today.

The conference sponsors'a group of DHS agencies'afforded access to the unclassified conference to select nonprofit organizations concerned with privacy issues from this country and Europe, but barred the media from most sessions of the meeting without explanation.

Stewart Baker, DHS' assistant secretary for policy, offered opening remarks about concerns the public has about new biometric technology and information sharing. Baker highlighted the public's concern about three factors involved in biometrics and information sharing policy:
  • The 'yuk factor,' or distaste that people might feel about unfamiliar, invasive technologies such as fingerprinting
  • The public's concern that biometric information gathered for identification purposes could also reveal other information, such as when a DNA sample might suggest that a person or their children could be especially vulnerable to a health problem and
  • Concerns the public might have about the expansion of the categories of uses for personal information, such as when information gathered for counterterrorism purposes might later be applied to problems such as tracking down people who don't pay child support or speeding tickets.

Baker went on to state that keeping biometric information in discrete systems to maintain privacy, as was the practice before the September 2001 terrorist attacks, is no longer an acceptable limit on counterterrorist methods.

He described how Congress and the administration have knocked down the legal walls that separated criminal and intelligence information in the past. 'There was a time when we were enthralled with [establishing] limits on who has data,' he said, explaining that such limits played a part in hobbling efforts by the FBI and CIA to catch dangerous terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Baker noted that his recent experience of negotiating an agreement with European officials over the use of airline passenger data showed that the idea of keeping such personal information in separate repositories 'still has a lot of appeal.'

The conference agenda indicated that participants will discuss issues such as the medical and health risks of biometric devices, the ethics of international data sharing and government-industry collaboration on biometrics applications.

The conference sponsors'DHS' Privacy Office, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, and the DHS Biometrics Coordination group'allowed certain domestic and foreign lobbies, scholars and nonprofit advocacy groups into the meeting, including:
  • The American Civil Liberties Union
  • Center for Democracy and Technology
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • The Center for Science, Society and Citizenship of Italy
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Hastings Center
  • International Forum for Biophilosophy of Belgium
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Rome
  • West Virginia University

However, the conference sponsors excluded the press from the main sessions of the conference. GCN has filed a Sunshine Act request for access to the entire conference and a reply is pending.

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