From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities and Beyond

23 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2012

See all articles by Jennifer Lynch

Jennifer Lynch

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

Date Written: May 22, 2012


The collection of biometrics — such as fingerprints, DNA, and face recognition-ready photographs — is becoming more and more a part of the society in which we live, no less so for immigrants within the United States. State and local law enforcement agencies are quickly adopting mobile biometrics scanners that can collect and identify fingerprints and even iris prints and face images taken from several inches to several feet away.

Both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are in the process of expanding their biometrics databases to collect much more information, including face prints and iris scans. As of January 2012, the FBI has been working with several states to collect face recognition‐ready photographs of all suspects arrested and booked. Once these federal biometrics systems are fully deployed, and once each of their approximately 100 million records also includes photographs, it may become trivially easy to find and track people within the United States.

Undocumented people living within the United States, as well as immigrant communities more broadly, are facing these issues more immediately than the rest of society and are uniquely affected by the expansion of biometrics collection programs. Under DHS’s Secure Communities program, states are required to share their fingerprint data — via the FBI — with DHS, thus subjecting undocumented and even documented immigrants in the United States to heightened fears of deportation should they have any interaction with law enforcement. Further, under data-sharing agreements between the United States and other nations, refugees’ biometric data may end up in the hands of the same repressive government they fled. Should they ever be deported or repatriated, they could face heightened risks from discrimination or even ethnic cleansing within their former home countries.

This paper addresses these issues. It discusses the state of biometrics in the United States today and its planned expansion in the future. It provides background information on biometrics and applicable laws and how biometrics and immigration issues intersect. It discusses concerns within the privacy advocacy community about biometrics, data sharing, and databases — and applies those concerns to immigration issues. Finally, it concludes with some proposals for change.

Suggested Citation

Lynch, Jennifer, From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities and Beyond (May 22, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Jennifer Lynch (Contact Author)

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) ( email )

815 Eddy St
San Francisco, CA 94109
United States

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