The Tagging of Our Species

The Tagging of Our Species

By Crystal Contreras

On June 26 2012, Detroit police apprehended a man after identifying him with a BlueCheck Mobile Scanner. After recording his fingerprint, law enforcement officials were able to verify the man’s name along with an outstanding warrant. The handheld machine is manufactured by 3M Cogent and widely believed to be a boon to local law enforcement agencies.

But while media coverage may be celebrating the use of this technology, it has troubling consequences for immigrant communities and populations worldwide. In the May 2012 report From Fingerprints to DNA, Biometric Data Collection in U.S.Immigrant Communities and Beyond, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jennifer Lynch describes the problems behind gathering and storing biometric data. She also touches on potential solutions to confront and adapt to the use of these devices, which are being used more frequently than ever to track, tag, and identify people within our communities.

Lynch states that the two largest biometrics databases in the world are the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint System (IAFIS) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). Each one holds over 100 million records, and IDENT stores information for agencies that operate under the DHS, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

In addition to state databases, areas like Los Angeles have their own regional one that shares the information with the FBI, who then relays the statistics to the DHS. A recent report by Elena Shore, an editor at New America Media, highlights how LAPD officers have been using these devices on day laborers not engaging in any suspicious activity. The LAPD denies having any account of the incident in question, but Sgt. Rudy Lopez admits that there are factors that make it difficult for an individual to know when to deny a request for fingerprints.

He states “There’s a lot of gray area as to when a person feels they can and cannot say no,” agreed Lopez. “If an officer is overbearing, the way he’s talking to them, if he positions his car in a certain way, that all goes into the picture of if it’s consensual or not

Once this information is gathered, the cross-agency exchange of an individual’s identifying characteristics, including gait, iris scans and wrist veins, makes it hard to track the department from which it originated. This leads to less accountability for errors, which are not uncommon and can be dispersed throughout the various systems.

There’s also the issue of standardization, which Lynch explains using our Social Security numbers as an example. The United States began issuing these numbers in 1935 as a way to track a person’s Social Security benefits. Now it’s used for background checks, insurance, credit checks and loans, just to name a few. Standardization means biometric data could potentially replace Social Security numbers which, if stolen, can be changed and reissued. While if someone’s biometric identity is stolen, well, you can’t really replace someone’s eye.

The FBI and ICE also have a draft agreement that allows them to provide this information to a deportee’s country of origin upon repatriation. Lynch points out that this is extremely problematic because this puts people at risk for returning to an oppressive or violent government where they could face ethnic cleansing and discrimination. This is perpetuated by the FBI’s ambitious plan to rapidly build massive databases which will include all forms of biometric features to be shared on an international scale.

A recent announcement on 3M Cogent’s website celebrated a contract signing with the Hong Kong police force. Over the next ten years, 3M Cogent will provide LiveScan stations that will be used to gather biometric data in police bureaus and immigration checkpoints across the region. Announcements like these are testimony to the increased use of these devices. Media coverage celebrates the usefulness of these gadgets, while speaking nothing to the severe negative implications this can have for communities around the world.

BlueCheck Mobile Scanners only enable a “catch and release” style of law enforcement, and Lynch expresses the urgency behind drafting legislation designed to keep all forms of biometric data separate and limited to the minimum needed to meet the government’s stated purpose. Another idea she puts forth is to prevent the government from beefing up its criminal databases using DMV photos and other biometrics obtained for non-criminal purposes. Regulations are necessary to ensure that our communities can keep up with the increasing use of these technologies. These devices transmit data at an amazing speed, and with agencies like ICE having access to the information they provide, the time for them to begin a deportation process is only shortened.


* Lynch, Jennifer (2012). “From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities and Beyond.” Electronic Frontier Foundation Immigration Policy Center,, accessed 8/28/2012.

** Shore, Elena (2012). “Immigrant Tracking Moves Deeper Into Realm of Sci-Fi“.New America Media