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Google Is Coming for Your Face

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Last week, The New York Times reported on the federal government’s plans to collect DNA samples from people in immigration custody, including asylum seekers. This is an infringement of civil rights and privacy, and opens the door to further misuse of data in the long term. There is no reason for people in custody to consent to this collection of personal data. Nor is there any clarity on the limits on how this data may be used in the future. The DNA samples will go into the FBI’s criminal database, even though requesting asylum is not a crime and entering the country illegally is only a misdemeanor. That makes the practice not only an invasion of privacy in the present but also potentially a way to skew statistics and arguments in debates over immigration in the future.

The collection of immigrant DNA is not an isolated policy. All around the world, personal data is harvested from the most vulnerable populations, without transparency, regulation, or principles. It’s a pattern we should all be concerned about, because it continues right up to the user agreements we click on again and again.

In February, the World Food Program (WFP) announced a five-year partnership with the data analytics company Palantir Technologies. While the WFP claimed that this partnership would help make emergency assistance to refugees and other food-insecure populations more efficient, it was broadly criticized within the international aid community for potential infringement of privacy. A group of researchers and data-focused organizations, including the Engine Room, the AI Now Institute, and DataKind, sent an open letter to the WFP, expressing their concerns over the lack of transparency in the agreement and the potential for de-anonymization, bias, violation of rights, and undermining of humanitarian principles, among other issues.

Many humanitarian agencies are struggling with how to integrate modern data collection and analysis into their work. Improvements in data technology offer the potential to improve processes and ease the challenges of working in chaotic, largely informal environments (as well as appealing to donors), but they also raise risks in terms of privacy, exposure, and the necessity of partnering with private-sector companies that may wish to profit from access to that data.

A man has his face painted to represent efforts to defeat facial recognition during a 2018 protest at Amazon’s headquarters over the company’s contracts with Palantir. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson)

In August, for example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees trumpeted its achievement in providing biometric identity cards to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh. What wasn’t celebrated was the fact that refugees protested the cards both because of the way their identities were defined—the cards did not allow the option of identifying as Rohingya, calling them only “Myanmar nationals”—and out of concern that the biometric data might be shared with Myanmar on repatriation, raising echoes of the role ethnically marked identity cards played in the Rwandan genocide, among others. Writing about the Rohingya biometrics collection in the journal Social Media + Society, Mirca Madianou describes these initiatives as a kind of “techno-colonialism” in which “digital innovation and data practices reproduce the power asymmetries of humanitarianism, and…become constitutive of humanitarian crises themselves.”

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