DHS Sued for Answers About Its Use of DNA Testing at the 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 U.S.-Mexico border.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint in federal court in San Francisco earlier this week, asking a judge to force the DHS to share information on its use of Rapid DNA testing.

The complaint highlights how little the DHS has so far shared about its use of DNA testing at the border.

The EFF has demanded to know how many people, including children have had their DNA collected at the border, how accurate the DNA tests are, as well as what exact gene processing is being used to identify parent-child relationships.

The lawsuit also asks the DHS to hand over its training materials, consent forms and a sample of the privacy statements families are being given, in addition to demanding to know the locations of DHS's Rapid DNA pilot programs.

A Central American migrant and her children walk outside El Chaparral port of entry, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on July 17, 2019. The DHS has been sued for information on its use of Rapid DNA testing at the U.S.-Mexico border. OMAR MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty

The bid to obtain more information about the program comes months after the DHS started using Rapid DNA testing on adults and children presenting themselves at the U.S. border.

The department had sought to use the program to identify "fraudulent" families, or adults and children who were not biologically related, but presenting as families at the border.

However, the EFF has argued that it has done so with little oversight and without sharing enough information about its process or how the program is being expanded.

"Congress has never authorized ICE 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 in a press release.

The organization'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.

Already the DHS has gained widespread condemnation over that plan. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and thousands of supporters have urged the Trump administration to abandon the plan, with thousands of public comments filed in the Federal Register.

"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," Eidelman said. "The administration should heed the calls of the thousands of people demanding it abandon this dangerous and xenophobic plan."

Newsweek has contacted the DHS for comment for this article.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spike in the number of family units detained at the southern border.

Southern Border Families Detained Migrant Crisis Statista
The number of family units apprehended at the southern border saw a sharp rise in 2019. Statista

This article was updated to include an infographic.