Trump’s Homeland Security Team Likely to Emphasize Facial Recognition and Biometric Surveillance

Trump's homeland security transition team has private-sector background in threat-detection algorithms, facial-recognition technology, and the like.

Illustration: Erik Carter for The Intercept

The backgrounds of the members of the team that President-elect Donald Trump is picking to shape the Department of Homeland Security suggests he will aggressively pursue surveillance using the latest technological advancements.

Trump, on the campaign trail, suggested that his law-and-order agenda would include mass surveillance of certain targets. “I want surveillance of certain mosques,” Trump declared at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama. “I want surveillance,” he added, “I will absolutely take [sic] database on the people coming in from Syria.”

If his personnel choices are any indication, Trump’s Homeland Security Department will favor a range of technological solutions, including threat-detection algorithms, facial-recognition technology, and an expansion of “verifiable” identity solutions both in real life and online.

Several people on Trump’s transition team are linked to a firm called Safran, a French defense contractor that has marketed expansive facial recognition and biometric software for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As The Intercept previously reported, Morpho, a division of Safran, has touted a “Google” style search tool for capturing and storing the identities of potential terrorists using facial recognition technology. The concept has been criticized by privacy experts for denying due process rights to those ensnared in the terrorist database for simply having certain facial features.

Michael Dougherty, one of the Trump officials handling the Homeland Security Department handoff, has worked to lobby policymakers as the president of the Secure Identity & Biometrics Association, a position he left to join the Trump team. The association represents several facial recognition firms, including Safran’s Morpho division.

Lora Ries, another transition team member, is a former registered lobbyist for L-1 Identity Solutions, a facial recognition firm that is now a subsidiary of Morpho. Brad Buswell, a former executive at Morpho Detection, a subsidiary of Safran that provides explosive-detection equipment for the Transportation Security Administration, was also tapped to work for the Trump transition on the Homeland Security Department.

John Sanders, the head of the geospatial intelligence startup Pramantha Solutions, is also on the team. Sanders sits on the board of Evolv, a security firm that markets a technology that combines existing CCTV cameras, facial recognition, and “open source, propriety sources” of information.

That the entire Trump Department of Homeland Security transition team hails from the private sector seems to be intentional, given the remarks of Trump’s pick to lead the agency.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly discussed the need to harness technology during his confirmation hearings last week, suggesting that the new administration would prioritize work with technology firms.

“I was watching something Ash Carter started when he took over at the Defense Department. He started to reach out to the commercial world — Silicon Valley, that kind of thing, to engage them,” Kelly said during the hearing. “More cooperation amongst the private sector and the federal sector, the state sector, would go a long way.”

In some ways, Trump would simply be taking the baton passed to him by Obama.

During Obama’s tenure, the Department of Homeland Security’s Directorate of Science and Technology consistently supported research into surveillance methods. A Washington State hockey rink, for instance, was the testing ground for an agency-funded experiment on facial recognition software in crowded environments.

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Administration, the agency’s in-house research institute, identified biometric entry-exit visa programs and predictive threat modeling that relies on complex algorithms as technological gaps that need to be filled.

The focus on identity technology is borne out in the agency’s most recent budget, which allocated $65 million to update the agency’s biometric database. HSARPA is also involved in the development and promotion of several other controversial technologies, including algorithmic prediction and Wide Area Surveillance, a surveillance method that uses multiple plane-mounted cameras to provide continuous coverage of a large geographic area with the ability to replay events.

First developed by the military in battlefields such as Iraq, Wide Area Surveillance has provoked outrage and protest when the public became aware of its use in Compton and Baltimore. Wide Area Surveillance was also deployed during the 2014 Boston Marathon, according to the agency’s FY2016 budget request. The system uses a secret network of cameras, including high definition equipment mounted to small Cessna airplanes, to provide a constant view surveillance of every individual walking on the sidewalk, every car driving on the street, and nearly almost any movement detectable from the sky. The system stores an archive, with the ability to rewind and track an individual.

During Obama’s term, the Department of Homeland Security also significantly expanded the availability of facial recognition technology to nonfederal law enforcement. According to budget documents  in 2014 the Homeland Security Information Network, an information-sharing system set up by the agency’s Office Of Intelligence & Analysis, created the “Multi-State Facial Recognition Community” that provided end users access to biometric search tools for “18 current participating states and fusion centers with the single click of a mouse.”

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