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Congress Seeks Insight on Handling Sensitive Personal Data
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Congress Seeks Insight on Handling Sensitive Personal Data

As technology grafts biometric tools into everyday amenities, lawmakers question how to prevent abuse and data breaches.

Happy Friday. We hope you have a nice long weekend and a lovely July 4. We won’t be sending you this newsletter on Tuesday, but we’ll be back in your inboxes on Friday next week. (If you want some recommended reading in the meantime, I have 20,000 words for you.)

Examining Biometrics and Privacy

This week, I went to the annual International Religious Freedom Summit and heard from people from all kinds of faiths and backgrounds about persecution around the globe—and how human rights advocates can fight back.

This year’s summit, as usual, focused on a wide range of topics, countries, and religious groups. China loomed large for its ongoing genocide of mostly Muslim ethnic minority groups in the northwest region of Xinjiang, repression in Tibet, crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong, and targeting of Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and other religious groups. 

Underpinning those human rights abuses is China’s sweeping surveillance network. Privacy has always been critical to ensuring religious freedom and freedom of speech. People must be able to speak to each other, practice their faiths, and move freely in their homes and cities without intimidation by government officials. In China, that has long been far from reality: The Chinese government has imposed one of the most far-reaching surveillance regimes in the world, not just in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also in the rest of the country.

As technology has advanced, other oppressive regimes have similarly jumped at the chance to easily surveil journalists, political dissidents, and religious minorities. This comes in many forms—software to pry into smartphones, cameras with better definition to track people coming and going, artificial intelligence to identify faces. China has taken it to an extreme, forcibly collecting DNA from Uyghurs and other minority groups en masse to automate identification of members of those ethnicities.

I mention all of this at the outset of today’s newsletter to frame a discussion that can become abstract at times. How the issues of privacy, surveillance technology, and new developments in biometrics unfold in real life, for real people facing tyranny, often gets lost in the weeds of theoretical research and various policy proposals. 

Biometric tools measure and draw conclusions from bodily characteristics, ranging from facial identification and fingerprints, to voice characteristics, to how an individual walks. Incorporating such research, alongside artificial intelligence, hasn’t just made our lives more convenient and safe (think of using FaceID to open an iPhone or new cars with eye-tracking features to discourage distracted driving). It can also fuel state-sponsored discrimination and genocide. Read this Congressional Research Service (CRS) report for a look beyond these points at how biometric research could also lead to autonomous weapons.

The high-tech march toward an even less private future isn’t just a concern in other countries. While these kinds of tools have boosted law enforcement capabilities in the United States—contributing to sex trafficking and abuse investigations, among other uses—it remains true the American government has a dismal record on keeping its spy and law enforcement agencies in check. And even if agencies and institutions remain committed to using data properly, experts fear data security breaches could divert sensitive information into the wrong hands.

Members of Congress increasingly agree it is urgent to set clearer privacy parameters for government agencies as they employ biometric tools. Some also want to examine how to empower people to control their own data, or at least provide more awareness of how both the private sector and the government use their information.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight met for a virtual hearing this week to brainstorm policy ideas and to hear from experts about how government agencies are handling biometric data and privacy. It was interesting to watch: Witnesses brought helpful backgrounds to the conversation and the four members who participated appeared genuinely eager to dive into the subject. Because it was a small panel, they also had the space to ask multiple rounds of questions.

Members discussed various state laws, a Government Accountability Office report on how law enforcement is using facial recognition, and worst-case scenarios for privacy, like the Chinese government’s current use of biometrics. (The film Minority Report also came up at one point.)

“As policy makers, we need to be acutely aware of not only the benefits that these biometrics have to our society, but also of the risks associated with the technology,” Rep. Jay Obernolte, the top Republican on the panel, said.

And Rep. Bill Foster, the Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The Supreme Court has substantially weakened the Constitutional right to privacy,” Foster said. “States attempting to criminalize access to medical care may try to use biometric data to prove where someone has been and what they did there. This makes protecting Americans’ biometric data more important than ever.”

Dr. Arun Ross—a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University who has worked extensively on identification technology research—made the case for altering biometric data before agencies store it, which could prevent abuse of the information. 

He said it is possible to use a technique called cancelable biometrics: mathematical formulas that could make information less easily analyzed or unreadable to humans but still usable for machines.

“Much more research, much more investment, much more evaluation is needed in order to substantiate these principles,” he told the lawmakers.

Academic researchers in biometrics, Ross added, are increasingly aware of the ethical and privacy implications of their research.

“This shift in the research culture is remarkable and bodes well for the future of the technology,” he said.

Candice Wright, director of science, technology assessment, and analytics for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), also testified about the government’s use of facial recognition tools.

Wright said a survey found that 14 federal agencies used non-federal systems for criminal investigations, such as state facial recognition programs or private vendor software. Of those 14 agencies, 13 did not have complete information on which non-federal systems their employees were using. 

“With its expanded use in the federal government, there are concerns about the accuracy of the technology, data security risks, the transparency of its usage, and the protection of privacy and civil liberties,” Wright told lawmakers.

Wright said the GAO has recommended the law enforcement agencies gather more information on the systems employees use to run facial recognition searches.

Members of Congress have not taken major action on the issue of biometrics recently, although it has been on their minds in the past few years. According to the CRS, the fiscal year 2021 annual defense authorization package tasked a national artificial intelligence advisory committee with considering whether the use of facial recognition by the government “is taking into account ethical considerations and … whether such use should be subject to additional oversight, controls, and limitations.”

The defense authorization bill the year before that included language that discriminatory use of facial recognition “is contrary to the values of the United States” and required the director of National Intelligence to submit a report on the intelligence community’s use of recognition tools to Congress. As the CRS report further points out, the same section of that defense package also bans “the sale or transfer of facial recognition technology to any country that is using such technology for the suppression of human rights.”

Congress is considering a much broader consumer privacy bill, although members are divided about it and haven’t landed on a clear path forward yet. One bipartisan plan, unveiled earlier this month, would impose stricter limits on when companies can share biometric data, such as in response to a warrant or if a consumer has affirmatively consented.

Dr. Charles Romine—director of the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology—said balancing the benefits of biometrics with protecting privacy won’t be simple. It will also have to be dynamic, evolving as technology advances.

“What we’ve discerned is that there is no technological solution that’s going to solve the privacy problem, and there is no purely policy solution that’s going to solve the problem,” he said during Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s an ongoing, joint effort of providing appropriate technologies for improving privacy protections, and matching those with appropriate policy decisions that can prevent some of these tragedies.”

Biden Backs Filibuster Carveout For Abortion

President Joe Biden said this week he would support ending the filibuster for abortion rights legislation, although his party does not have enough support within the Senate to do so.

“We have to codify Roe v. Wade in the law, and the way to do that is to make sure the Congress votes to do that,” Biden said this week. “And if the filibuster gets in the way, it’s like voting rights: We provide an exception for this, or an exception to the filibuster for this action.”

Doing away with the filibuster would decrease the threshold for passing legislation from the current 60 votes to a simple majority of 51. Democrats have just 50 members of the Senate, with a tie-breaking vote available if needed from Vice President Kamala Harris. Two Democratic senators—Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—are staunchly opposed to ending the filibuster. They have indicated they don’t support changing the chamber’s rules in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last week. 

Their stance makes it highly unlikely that Democrats will be able to take substantive steps to enshrine abortion rights this Congress.

Biden’s remarks add support for action in the event that Democrats win more seats in the Senate come November. He has not endorsed a full end to the filibuster, but he has previously lent his support to an exception for voting rights bills. 

His remarks came as he faces pressure from Democratic lawmakers and activists to take more meaningful action in response to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe.

“Now we’re talking,” New York progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote of Biden’s position on the filibuster. “Time for people to see a real, forceful push for it. Use the bully pulpit. We need more.”

Reconciliation and Competition

Democrats have been quietly negotiating a potential path forward for a prescription drug pricing bill they could advance along party lines, NBC News’s Sahil Kapur reported this week.

The bill would resurrect an effort long stalled after Manchin shut down an earlier sweeping agenda package amid concerns about inflation and disagreements over how to pay for its key components. These talks are already complicated: Democrats need unanimous support in the Senate to advance a bill along party lines through the budget reconciliation process, as they did last year for a coronavirus relief measure. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is attempting to dissuade Manchin from continuing his talks with Democratic leaders by threatening a separate priority: the sweeping China competition package lawmakers have been finalizing for months. McConnell said after news of progress in Manchin’s discussions that a bipartisan competition bill, including funding for semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, would not proceed if Democrats pass a partisan reconciliation bill.


The two chambers have faced hurdles agreeing to a compromise version of the competition package. This week’s escalation will only make those negotiations more fraught. While lawmakers largely agree on the need for action to boost American competitiveness, wide-ranging policy disagreements and the upcoming midterm elections have created hurdles in the talks.

Still, Democratic leaders have expressed hope the bill could advance this month when lawmakers return from their July 4 recess.

“This legislation is necessary to help lower costs for the American people by addressing supply chain issues, the chips shortage and more, and we urge all members to work with the urgency the situation deserves,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote last month.

Presented Without Comment

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.