Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

The West will soon be sharing their citizens’ biometric data

  • If you already think China’s state surveillance is intrusive and dystopian, you have not yet seen the brave new world that is just over the horizon

You have probably read news stories about how China is building the world’s largest surveillance network and that the country is becoming a hi-tech dystopian nightmare.

Well, the United States, Europe and many of their allied states are catching up and may soon be exceeding China’s surveillance capabilities. That’s because their systems will not only be domestic like China’s, but also transnational and fully convergent. Many of them may soon be sharing your most personal data with each other.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is offering select foreign governments access to its vast biometric database of its own citizens in exchange for similar access to their systems. That’s according to Statewatch, a British-based NGO that monitors state policies and civil rights across Europe.
Under the “ Enhanced Border Security Agreements”, the DHS will be targeting all 40 countries whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel to the US for up to 90 days for the mass data-sharing arrangement. These include most of the 27 member states of the European Union, Britain, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Unsurprisingly, Britain and Israel are reportedly on board for the pact. The DHS is approaching individual EU member states directly to bypass the European Commission, which is more likely to insist on the EU’s much higher legal protection standards for personal data than the US.

The US database being offered is called the IDENT/HART, described as the largest of its kind and containing 270 million identities with their 1.1 billion “encounters” or incidents associated with their records. The programme itself, according to Statewatch, is internally called the “DHS International Biometric Information Sharing (IBIS) Program and Enhanced Biometric Security Partnership (EBSP)”.

The shareable data includes: “biographic, derogatory, and encounter information”. Derogatory? This category includes: “known or suspected terrorists; sexual offenders; some federal conviction information; criminal convictions for immigration and cross-border crimes; immigration violations and revoked visas; military records; criminal history information pertaining to aliens removed from the US; known or suspected gang members; known or suspected drug smugglers; known or suspected human traffickers or human smugglers; law enforcement community alerts”.

US ‘smart city’ tech highlights contrasts with China over privacy, control

And it’s touted as fully automated, without the need for human intervention with the data searches. So good luck getting your name cleared from the system. But wait, you must be suspect by virtue of being caught up in the massive data net! This is not paranoia, as flaws in existing biometric systems, especially facial recognition, may lead to false identification, especially with women and children, as well as people with darker skin. But who knows? Maybe technology will improve by the time the US gets everyone on board.

For now, partnership is voluntary, but Statewatch quoted reports that said after 2027, all foreign states must join if they want to continue with the existing US visa-free programme.

Goodbye, privacy! Hello, cross-border harassment, or worse!