DHS sued over rapid DNA testing at border

DHS sued over rapid DNA testing at border

A privacy rights group is suing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for answers about its use of rapid DNA technology on migrant families at the US–Mexico border.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint in federal court in San Francisco. EFF is the leading non-profit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. The organization has asked a judge to force the DHS to share information on its use of rapid DNA testing. So far, the DHS has shared little information on this.

The EFF has demanded to know how many people, including children, have had their DNA collected at the border. They also want to know how accurate the DNA tests are, what exact gene processing is being used to identify parent–child relationships, and where exactly the locations are of DHS’s rapid DNA pilot programs. Further, the lawsuit asks the DHS to hand over its consent forms, training materials and a sample of the privacy statements that the families are being given.

Rapid DNA testing

DHS began implementing a rapid DNA testing pilot program in May in which agents took cheek swabs from migrants that could be processed in about 90 minutes. DNA testing was initially introduced at seven locations at the southern border.

The intention was to use DNA testing to identify ‘fraudulent’ families (i.e., adults and children who were not biologically related, but presenting as families at the border). When the program was implemented, child activists voiced their concerns and highlighted that not all parents are genetically related to their children. Some minors may be travelling with step-parents or other guardians. In addition, Jennifer Podkul, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, said that some fathers may not be aware that their child is not genetically related to them.

Border Patrol agents are not specifically trained in child welfare. Professional child specialists are more qualified to assess whether a family relationship is genuine, said Podkul.

“It’s much better to make sure you have a trained child welfare professional who knows how to screen children, who knows how to look for signs of abuse or signs of fear”, she said.

Unauthorized testing?

EFF argues that the DHS has implemented the DNA testing program with little explanation and without sharing enough information about its process or how it is being expanded.

“Congress has never authorized ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to conduct Rapid DNA testing on migrant families at the border, yet DHS has deployed this privacy-invasive technology without explaining how accurate the testing is, whether families can challenge the results, or how the program may be expanded in the future”, said EFF Staff Attorney Saira Hussain in a statement shared with Newsweek.

EFF’s complaint comes amid a DHS proposal to expand the collection of DNA of detained migrants and store that information in a federal criminal database. The proposal has seen thousands of public comments filed in the Federal Register. In addition, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and thousands of supporters have urged the Trump administration to abandon the plan.

“This unjustifiable step towards full population surveillance threatens to subvert our foundational values of freedom, autonomy, and presumed innocence”, said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project in a statement shared with Newsweek.

“Under this dehumanizing plan, immigrants who already have no control over their movements, their health, or their futures would also lose control over their genetic blueprints”, she said. “The administration should heed the calls of the thousands of people demanding it abandon this dangerous and xenophobic plan.”

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