What People Get Wrong On The Immigration Bill’s Biometric Data

On Friday, a Wired headline warned there is a “Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform.” The claim stemmed from a section of the bill that calls for the creation of a “photo tool” to help employers authenticate the identity of prospective employees by comparing them to a photo database — essentially an extension of the existing E-Verify program using — and has been thoroughly debunked, but many of the debunkers have gotten one key fact wrong: Your face most definitely is a biometric identifier.

First, let’s be clear that the bill does not mandate the creation of a giant biometric database of everyone. The legislation does call for biometric information like finger prints to be collected by the government about undocumented immigrants currently in the country as part of the process of determining provisional immigration status, but that will not include American citizens. The State Department also already maintains a database of visa and passport photos it uses for immigration and travel purposes. And while there is a section about an employment photo tool in the bill, under U.S. v. Printz, it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to compel states to allow access state ID photos without the state entering into an agreement to share that information — certainly possible, but not in the legislation.

But having established these facts, both the Daily Beast and Daily Caller go a step further in their rebuttals by quoting congressional sources asserting that a collection of ID photos would not qualify as a biometric database. The Daily Beast quotes an unidentified Senate aide claiming:

Biometrics typically refer to certain physiological traits that are distinctly unique to you, like your fingerprints, an iris scan, or your DNA that comes off on those small sticks that you swab on the inside of your cheek at the doctor’s office. Photographs of you do not, in and of themselves, possess these types of traits that identify you based on your own unique physiological characteristics; thus, no one can say that they are in fact biometrics.

This is wrong because your face is, in fact, a unique physiological characteristic — one technology is increasingly able to track. Even if you have a twin, there is no one in the world who has your exact face — thus an identifiable photo of your face is a piece of biometric data. That’s why the FBI Biometric Center of Excellence supports facial recognition and identification work.


While facial recognition tech lags behind the identifiers like iris scans, fingerprints or DNA — tests showed the best algorithms in 2010 could correctly identify someone from a 1.6 million person database with 92 percent accuracy — facial recognition is used on photo databases in many agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice. The FBI is currently in the process of expanding their ability to use facial recognition technology, investing $1 billion in a Next Generation Identification (NGI) program which will combine photo identification of criminals with other biometric identifiers including iris scans, fingerprints, DNA evidence, and voice recognition in 2012. NGI is already being implemented, with a nationwide roll out expected in 2014 despite the concern of privacy advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which is currently suing the government to obtain more details about the program.