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Homeland Security’s New Database to Include Faces, DNA, and Relationships (eff.org)
230 points by pietroglyph 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

Faces, DNA, and relationships aren’t particularly new data points. The government has my passport photo, DNA (military record), and can check out my tax returns, Facebook, Twitter, etc to see who my wife, children, business partners, coworkers, and other family are.

The fundamental issue with their new database is that some analysis will be done on all of that data, along with criminal and public records, to characterize someone and store the result in the database. At that point, you’ve been classified and good luck getting out of whatever box they put you in (just see no fly lists for an example).

Now that you’re on some list, it snowballs. Every encounter with agents, every flight, every new relationship, any odd transaction will just make it worse and solidify how much of a threat/person of interest/terrorist/extremist you are.

Source: I’m a former intelligence analyst.

Now before the WWII German intelligence built databases of polish elites, scientists, politicians, activists, actors and their families, so when the war started they were able to quickly round them up and exterminate. Imagine something like this happens again in the US - enemy gaining access to such database would have everything on a silver platter. Even more plausible motive would be if future government wanted to remove people that they deem enemy to the state (incompatible political beliefs). It would be easy to just deliver them poison disguised as Amazon delivery and have the nation cleansed of the problematic populace. Such database is irresponsible on another level.

This post is 100% spot on. Ask the folks at Palantir under what conditions a person stops being identified as a 'target' in their database... Hint: everything you do, on a daily basis, can be construed as incriminating.

Source: Worked in an intelligence battalion for 5 years.

Trouble with all this guilt by association is we don't choose friends and neighbours via criminal and national security background checks. Friends come from mutual situations such as work, or events, and chance via already existing friends and you just get along (or are attracted).

If you live nearby you might even be visiting a possible terrorist for barbeque or beer entirely innocently. I suspect few will be discussing, or have any idea of, their plans for a bank raid.

We may have a lot of data and meta data but we seem to be asking very unintelligent questions worthy of McCarthy / Stasi era paranoia.

Stalins' sidekick was fond of saying, "Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime." --- Lavrentiy Beria

yes but what do we do about it? mesh networks? private data security? (GDPR doesn't apply to police/state security...)

My solution is not attracting attention. Basically through compartmentalization. My meatspace identity is entirely unremarkable. I'm not outspoken about privacy. Or about anything, really. I do hit the Internet through a VPN, but that's fairly common in my country.

That's not "not attracting attention", that's called living in fear. I don't know the particulars of where you live, but it makes me sad you feel this is necessary.

Maybe so. But fear is rational sometimes. I wouldn't have survived long as an acid dealer without extreme discretion.

Alternatives include conforming to unjust laws, or violating openly and ending up imprisoned. Neither sound like fun. Or, yes, going somewhere else. But in my experience, there's really nowhere to go. So hey.

At a certain point on this trajectory, that strategy will raise red flags too.

Mass surveillance is a direct violation of the fourth amendment, outlawing it completely is the only reasonable solution.

So you say. And perhaps eventually, adversaries will trace every VPN connection. But as I said, VPN usage is pretty common, so that'd be challenging. I'm betting that I'll be dead first. And I guess that we'll see.

It's easy to cite the Fourth Amendment. But it's all in the interpretation. The War on Drugs arguably violates the Bill of Rights in numerous ways. But try telling that to a judge.

And anyway, as I frequently note, the NSA is a military COMSEC organization. And the US is perpetually at war. So the NSA ignores the Constitution and law. At best, it pretends respect.

What you describe reminds me of the stories my significant other's parents tell about living under Stasi in the GDR.

Ok, without the VPN part.

Indeed. The insight is that virtually all modern states are authoritarian. Some just have better PR. And there are too many assholes in the stateless places.

In the former Soviet Union, there weren't VPNs, Tor and stuff. But there was samizat. And much conversation, fueled by vodka and bad cigarettes. It ended up working well enough. Except that Reagan, Bush and Carter went on to screw Russia so badly that it embraced Putin.

Thanks a lot. Never heard of samizat. Had to ask Google and was intrigued. Interesting stuff and something new I learned.

Go talk to your Congressperson or their staff. Get a satisfactory answer. Or, if you don't, go talk to their primary or general election opponent (or their staff). Make it clear what's important to you.

Ignoring that you need to fight against both major parties to attempt to put someone against this in office, think of all the dirt this database could uncover on the politician.

Urgh this is the worst point HN keep making vis-a-vis surveillance. Dirt on politicians is evidence of actual crimes and wrongdoings - not supposition and heresay.

Surveillance doesn't magically generate blackmail material on politicians if they haven't done anything wrong, and politicians have a vastly reduced right to privacy compared to the rest of us.

"Politicians could be blackmailed!" is a weak as hell argument because if they can be blackmailed then they are corrupt and should be exposed.

The problem is what happens to all the rest of us - private citizens who do not wield power and influence, do not write the laws, and as is noted in the OP here, who suffer very real consequences to our lives from being categorized by intelligence systems.

>Urgh this is the worst point HN keep making vis-a-vis surveillance. Dirt on politicians is evidence of actual crimes and wrongdoings - not supposition and heresay.

There are a wide range of things that count as dirt. Legal yet scandalous behavior, various social gaffes, past political stances that may not represent their current views, or criminal acts from one of the many "relationships" tracked. All of these things have been used to attack candidates.

>Surveillance doesn't magically generate blackmail material on politicians if they haven't done anything wrong, and politicians have a vastly reduced right to privacy compared to the rest of us.

If we know these organizations have these extreme surveillance capabilities, they largely can magically generate blackmail. The amount of proof needed to generate a scandal is low, and falsifiable.

>The problem is what happens to all the rest of us - private citizens who do not wield power and influence, do not write the laws, and as is noted in the OP here, who suffer very real consequences to our lives from being categorized by intelligence systems

One of those consequences is the hidden destruction of our democracy. As these powers become stronger, we lose our ability to reject them in our political system.

The point is actually about politicians being above the law, specifically the unequal power between surveilled (us) and surveillant (politicians), not that people under surveillance can be made to look guilty (which is pretty obvious).

Furthermore, if politicians want power X but only if X can't be used on themselves, then that power can easily be used corruptly.

> Dirt on politicians is evidence of actual crimes and wrongdoings - not supposition and heresay.

$politician went with some supporters to a strip club. News at 11.

You think that won't affect the electoral outcome, even if it is perfectly legal? And if it does, that it could not be used in collusion with security forces to preserve an entrenched power?

DNA records would be new for the vast majority of Americans (i.e. non-veteran civilians).

It's likely the government has your DNA, especially if you've been born in the US in the last 20-30 years due to newborn blood banks. An example of California having a database going back to 1983:


They asked for my child's DNA when they were born (in case they get kidnapped, they said), but I declined (this was Florida).

Some states are opt-in, California is not. The state is required to inform new parents that they can make a request to have it destroyed, but there is some contention that most new parents aren't told and/or don't understand. So, the state collects this DNA data in to a large database and then makes it available for law enforcement and also sells it to "outside researchers" -- whatever that means [0]. There's no consent here and not much awareness or knowledge of the fact that this goes on.

[0]: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/california-biobank-dna-babies-w...

True, but the actual percentage of “vast” is debatable. There are many ways that your DNA can be collected including when being arrested, for medical treatment, military or civil service, or just at birth [1].

1. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/02/04/baby.dna.government/ind...

Or volunteered to an online genetic testing service.

Or a blood relative.

its "vast" if the actual amount thats been collected previously is negligible and now its to be generalized to the whole population.

I got stopped at airport Port of entry and they had all the details of my roommates, roommates spousses. This was back in 2006. I can't even imagine what they have now.

>Source: I’m a former intelligence analyst.

In your (formerly) professional opinion, how should we be identifying and characterizing threats? Where does emerging technology (ML/AI, etc) perform well?

Why do you people keep calling it ‘Intellegence’, it’s ‘Insecurity’.

If the US has this, can you imagine what the Chinese database has?

It’s very probable that the Chinese have a database on every person in the world. Everything you ever posted, and who knows what else, all sitting on some server, lying in wait. It wouldn’t take much more than an Oracle DB on a single Dell server.

The purpose of this would be something akin to the Soviet “sexpionage” of the 60’s and the 70’s. It’s incredible blackmail material. It doesn’t need to be used now, but as people grow older and move up the ranks of organizations, all of the naked photos that were swiped from their iCloud account 17 years before can prove incredibly damaging.

EDIT: Singled out China as an example, but should have said most governments.

The Snowden leaks showed us that the US already have everything you just described.

I’m sure China, Russia and others have it as well, but right now, as you’re browsing HN on the toilet, a NSA agent could be watching you in real time through the camera on your phone.

Do you cover your devices' cams and mics?

They could know exactly where you are in the house and read every one of your files through back doors. They have all your private keys and sign anything as you and then incriminate you using it.

I think people are so naive to think that crypto keeps them secure.

I agree with you, except in your singling out of China.

Can you point to anything in China and say with reasonable confidence that it's not happening elsewhere?

I want to say not with the same brazenness, if that's a word.


However, I know this isn't true. Just watched a documentary by Al Jazeera about sheriffs in the US who are in charge of running county jails. This is why we need to protect the rights of whistleblowers.

The funny thing is that here in the US we have somehow placated must people into thinking they're a-ok if they're white. In hindsight, this is the main coup of the civil war and how the South actually won the civil war even after losing the war. Just reframe the question and make it about whites versus blacks.

My favorite story is a young white woman who moved to Overland Park, Kansas is greeted by her full legal name by a neighbor who works for the police. The most likely way he knew her middle name was through a search on their database (afair, she said she usually omitted her middle name). It sounds like nothing but this is a demonstration of power and that he's watching her.

We know all we need to know from the Stanford prison experiments. The guards in the experiment didn't just act rude based on race. I think more people need to be aware that this isn't about the color of someone's skin. This will be a very rude awakening for a lot of people when they get caught up.

You're assuming that the US collects less information on people than other governments collect. That is not necessarily a valid assumption.

I post it a million times but I will post it again. Please visit decidethefuture.org and/or fightforthefuture.org and see what your local politicians stance on data privacy, surveillance, and privacy/data policy.

The best way to protect your privacy and your constitutional rights is to vote for privacy advocates.

Much like bills in government sessions, naming is everything: bad bills can have happy-sounding names and receive endless support, and so can government agencies.

“Homeland Security” is genius naming because you can justify almost anything with that name. They can always need more money “for security”. They can always be granted new powers “for security”. Hell, these ridiculous tariffs are “for national security” because literally nothing else justifies them.

And let’s not forget this is a relatively new government entity: it did not exist 20 years ago. It was created opportunistically (“never waste a crisis”) with full knowledge that it would be very hard to eliminate.

It didn’t before? I remember crossing the border from Canada to the US after 9/11 but before you had to have a passport (a driver’s license and birth certificate were sufficient) and I was asked a series of questions. The questions included a lot of family stuff, like “where does your father work?” but they also included “what is your girlfriend’s birthday,” which I found odd because I was dating a lot and didn’t have a steady girlfriend at the time. I’m not bragging here, but it took me three name/birthday combinations to guess the one the border agent had on his terminal screen.

Those kinds of questions can also be used just to let the border agent evaluate how you answer them. If they sense evasiveness, they may think you are worthy of further screening or searches.

I remember going through the border at Houston airport several years ago, travelling with some work colleagues, one of which was an 18 year old girl who had never been on a plane before. The border guy was one of the 'little Hitler' types, and gave her a series of rapid fire personal questions about her relationship with her boyfriend back home - his overbearing demeanour and personal nature of the question were completely inappropriate, and my colleague ended up confused, scared and in tears.

I travelled to the US several times afterwards, landing in either Houston or Atlanta, and the border crossing was always a horrible experience. Thankfully I haven't had to go for years now. Worth noting that I've travelled to many countries, spread over every continent, and never experienced border guards as nasty and vicious as they are in the US - if anything, they are generally friendly elsewhere!

This is the most likely scenario I think. Border agents will ask very probing questions to try and uncover contradictions in your story

The girlfriend’s birthday question surprises me. Did they first ask if you had a girlfriend? Otherwise, how would they know? It's hard to imagine that they'd have such detailed profiles for most Americans, let alone Canadians.

While I certainly wouldn't make a bet at even odds on border agents having that information immediately readily available at time.now(), it doesn't sound particularly difficult to imagine how they COULD do it. Cell phone location data comes to mind.

Sure, but I got from the comment that this was some years ago. I agree that it's not hard to imagine how. I'm just surprised. I guess that I'm just not paranoid enough. Hard to believe, I know.

Haha, fair enough, I was probably taking your wording a bit too literally.

How would they even know you had a girlfriend? That's not something publicly available like a marriage record would be.

Couldn't uber tell if you had one night stands? Wasn't there a telecom tracking service that was until recently open to the public, where you could get locations of phones just by the number?

If there was some geolocation between two devices registered to accounts owned by opposite sexes of similar age spending time together, overnight & with time, then you have the data you need?

This was in the early 2000s. I’m not sure how effective pervasive cell phone data gathering was yet for people who weren’t customarily targets of surveillance. Maybe I was a test case since I was doing a lot of match.com type dating.


What if we don't know her birthday?

I dunno, either the data will be too noisy to make any inferences OR they will focus on people who have no connections. But the big risk will be the false positive rate and those who get put on lists and denied travel, entry or jobs.

I don't want to make this political as I'm unaffiliated with any political party, but I notice a trend and have a theory.

When Republicans are shaping policy, they tend to target air travel.

The article states that the system gets false denials as much as 1 out of 25 times... 4% is a very high error rate. For DIA alone that would average out to almost ~6,700 false denials a day. And that's not accounting for people who have been miscategorized in the system by the threat detection algorithm. It's another level of worry and potential headache associated with air travel.

Before 9/11, you could arrive at an airport 20 minutes before your flight was supposed to take off and still make it. After 9/11, to get on a plane you had to let the government take a nude picture of you, get a dose of radiation, and expect security lines to take 2 hours or more.

The hassle of flying made the comparative cost of driving places less because there was so much hassle associated with it.

And that's the basis my theory, the government is trying to dissuade people from flying in favor of burning through oil by artificially increasing its cost. Not to mention, like always, lining the pockets of the contractors in what is likely another no-bid scenario.

When 9/11 happened, public resources were poured into buying a bunch of nude body scanners that nobody wanted, were unvetted for long-term safety, and were literally useless for many types of weapons. But the measures were successful at making flying a nightmare.

Now the goal is to pour public resources into broadening the scope of no-fly list and implement a broken computer vision system to figure out who to ground? And for what? Has there been an upswing in terrorists hijacking planes domestically lately that we're responding to?

To my knowledge there have been 0 incidents of air travel terrorism in the US since 9/11.

It seems like the Republicans just like to make air travel as miserable as possible to convince the average American to choose to road trip in the face of cheap and quick air travel to justify their oil interests.

And with people as irresponsible as the ones who put in the Rapiscan machines in charge of evaluating threat levels it seem like a recipe for disaster (unless you are a private prison owner).

Not to mention that with 2012's National Defense Authorization act, America was qualified as a war zone to justify its indefinite detention clause. I don't think anyone what's to live in an America where groups of politically active people could be hauled off as terrorist threats because they didn't want an oil pipeline polluting the waterways of the natives.

Go to the airport for vacation and end up indefinitely detained as a terrorist? That would frighten many people out of flying I'd imagine.

DHS is a bad joke that needs to go away.

Interesting theory, but I was about to say that oil burned per person mile is higher for airplanes than for cars. It seems that this is old info however; since 2005 airplanes have indeed been more efficient, in the US at least. [0]

I should add that I agree that the hassle at checkout is becoming a impediment to flying, but I still don't believe your theory. I believe the most important driving force paradoxically may be the airlines (in addition to the surveillance state), in a drive to give passengers the sense of security they need to keep flying, it was always a sensitive issue.

[0] http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/business/the...

Yeah, I'm definitely not saying people should be flying or driving as much as they do (the time-convenience or price of air travel may cause people who wouldn't otherwise travel to go for it - I've definitely hopped a plane back to CA just because Frontier was offering flights for $20 each way). And the use of cost functions in terms of the dollar rather than thermal / fuel efficiency do result in a lot of poor decisions by airlines based on maximizing profit.

But in terms of the financial impact on the 1% and their incentive to try to shape policy, there are a mountain of reasons for them to want people to use cars rather than planes.

For one, there are some ultra rich people that own a bunch of gas stations and the attached convenience store. People flying over middle America hurt their bottom line, and they get to cry foul on the basis of it killing "small town business."

Next, regarding thermal efficiency, planes operate at 35,000 ft (this may be less now as I notice low-cost airlines like Frontier tend to fly lower) but the thing is, the less atmosphere you have above you, the less insulation you have for the heat to be retained inside the atmosphere and the more cooling you have from the cold of space.

Driving on the other hand generates enormous amounts of heat on the surface of the planet. Both with the gasoline burning, but also with the road network.

If you've ever ridden a bike on a hot day and crossed from a concrete to black asphalt, you probably noticed a rather substantial temperature change. Black asphalt, in addition to being yet another way to sell a petroleum product to the masses, is more black than pretty much any naturally occurring substance on the planet and as such generates more heat. And unlike other black substances like volcanic rock, asphalt traps heat (I've definitely had my feet scorched while running across blacktop).

This surface heat generation has a compounding effect for the 1% as America has an unhealthy obsession with climate control and by generating more surface heat, they are essentially selling more coal to power the air conditioning units (places like Arizona where heat is the worst are not even mildly interested in ecologically responsible power generation - the retirees living there by and large support Trump who's putting through legislation like PV tariffs). And any heat is good in the eyes of a coal tycoon because it creates a positive feedback loop - the hotter it gets the more coal they get to burn and the hotter it gets.

Plus the hotter it gets, the more people can make an excuse to drive their air conditioned car to their local whatever rather than riding a bike or walking because "it's just too hot" or "it's unsafe to be out in this heat."

So I guess I'm just saying that I think air vs car travel has a much bigger impact on the bottom-line of the 1%ers than most people account for.

To your point of average BTUs, I think you also have to average out passive BTUs generated by all cross-country roadways against cross-country travelers to get an accurate number and a multiplier effect of coal & gasoline fueled climate control (I assume fuel efficiency with driving goes way down when high temperatures cause people to blast their AC), and also account for added thermal efficiency of air travel in terms of how much of that energy is actually captured by the atmosphere and how much is negated by space cooling.

There's also the point of average environmental cost vs marginal environmental cost to the consumer. The average cost might be really high if my $20 flight was under-booked and there were only 40 passengers onboard. But if that flight were going to happen anyway because the airline had already passed the threshold to justify not cancelling it, then the marginal environmental cost of me flying is low. I'm essentially just a 200 pound weight on a 135,000 pound machine. Fuel efficiency-wise for the plane, I am equivalent to a ~3 lb weight in a 1 ton automobile.

Interesting graph, though also curious that it would appear that the intersection point of the airlines incrementally improving efficiency trend line and the auto's relatively stable trend line appears to have happened around 2000/2001 right around the time of the 9/11 attack. (Not that I'm suggesting anything nefarious, but Ooooooo....)

And agree to disagree on the airlines being the driving force for these measures (or any related measures like the travel ban).

I agree that Republicans are generally more hawkish, but the Democrats are at the very least deeply complicit. Most of our politicians appear to be quite okay with big brother statism.

I actually do believe in the existence of the deep state, which may explain some politicians'reluctance to reining in the intelligence community. (However, it's also absurd that corrupt-assed people have latched on to that idea to defend their blatant corruption.)

Yeah, this is why I didn't want to try to make it out to be political despite calling out Republicans, as I do think the false dichotomy of Republican vs Democrat is an attempt to make politics something that the average American [insert spectator sport here] enthusiast can get behind in a good vs evil paradigm and distract from the weird stuff their doing. (Like President Obama signing the Farmer Assurance Provision, otherwise known as the "Monsanto Protection Act" into law while everyone was distracted with the Supreme Court decision in CA on gay-marriage)

And I did mention 2012's NDAA as a big part of the problem, that was all President Obama. He said he needed the power but swore to not use it. To which the logical response was, "Yeah, great, but then why fight for the dystopian clause in the first place and also, what if the person after you is a complete nutter?" Then we got Trump.

Both sides have also engaged in illegal warfare that as you put it, we have all been complicit with. The movement towards a surveillance state seems like an act of war against our own citizens. So no argument here, whether it is the system or the politicians who are corrupted, something is definitely amiss.

It's not a false dichotomy. The American system does not allow third parties to prosper.

It is a very real dichotomy: if you want things to change, then you need to vote for the largest group which is vaguely aligned towards your interests, and then wait for them to split into two new, largest groups.

First past the post is a terrible system, and spoiler candidates are very real in it. If you want this to be a false dichotomy, get rid of FTTP and implement preferential voting (and mandatory voting, which is how you get it to work).

This should be of no surprise.

Any data available from data brokers is available to gov agencies. It's being obtained via legal means, and therefore (afaik) is not covered by privacy law and other legal protections.

> therefore (afaik) is not covered by privacy law and other legal protections.

if it goes beyond legal mandate and the framework for that agencies legitimacy, collection method is somewhat irrelevant.

I realize this is a silly idea, but would forming a religion around privacy ever provide protection from this sort of thing?

It would be easier to vote out the asswipes who promote this kind of agenda.

That's one of the reasons many people voted for Obama. It didnt work.


Next is the census.

Yeah every 10 years our system will become more twisted and polarized as whoever's in power at the time uses the last decade worth of technological development to draw ever more bulletproof maps. If the Republicans control the majority of the states for the second round in a row, this round of gerrymandering may be the last straw for our beleaguered system.

Is there a DHS scorecard? How well has it succeeded at its mandates?

I'm sure they can't divulge that information because "national security" —__—

And yet national ID cards are still out of the question.

What's the argument against national IDs?

There's this fantasy in America that, in some existential crisis, one can just go somewhere and start a new life. It's like an understood aspect of the Bill of Rights.

this is somewhat of a gross oversimplificiation. Agreed disappearing is not really possible these days, but there are also philosophical underpinnings about the federal govt being a 'federation of independent states' rather than a distinct authority over-and-above the states, which factors in here, among other things.

True. But that's the states' rights thing. This is the individual rights thing. The stand that the nation is a federation of individuals. There were diverse individual autarchic influences. From the French (as we all know) and the Russians (blending individualism with collective effort). Similarly, the Religious Society of Friends (albeit involving Christ). And ironically, the Iroquois League. Plus the settler vibe.

Every time it comes up in Congress it is shelved or voted down with the same bullshit mantras of how our congressmen are protecting our right to privacy.

My understanding is the states were fighting it.

A couple years ago there was a thing that you couldn't get through airport security with an Arizona drivers license but had to go get an ID card that complied with federal rules, not sure what ever happened with that though.

My theory is it has something to do with DLs being valid until you're 65 so there's a bunch of old ones floating around without all the fancy modern technology built in but who knows?

> A couple years ago there was a thing that you couldn't get through airport security with an Arizona drivers license but had to go get an ID card that complied with federal rules, not sure what ever happened with that though.

This is still a thing, not sure about AZ specifically.


Basically says that if your state doesn't dump DL/ID info into federal databases, and some other requirements, you can't use it for some things federally - and so effectively creates a 'National ID' without overtly doing so.

That it would lead to a national database that would get used to abridge our rights.

But now we have the worst case, where there’s a database but no coherent national identification scheme.

What. The. Hell.

This is getting out of hand. Bad enough bloody Facebook has entire continents of social graphs. Governments DEFINITELY DO NOT NEED THIS.

This is how you erode or work around legal protections for your citizenry. Once one country starts, others will implement the same, then the information sharing starts.

NO. Just NO. The cat is probably already well out of the bag, but the world really doesn't need this.

Could you please not use allcaps for emphasis in HN comments?

This is in the site guidelines: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html.

This is already stuff the Department of Homeland Security is doing - this is like an action plan for "future releases". The government (and the people who are involved in it) willfully want to do this and have decided they will start doing it. It makes me think of the teenager who gets caught smoking by their parents, is told to stop because it's bad, then sneaks out at night and smokes anyways because they wanted to and came up with some reason to justify it.

On another note, I can only imagine what some of the less-accountable governments would to do with this information if they looked at the DHS as an example. Any authoritarian government wanting to maintain their position above the public would love to have complex PII available at the execution of a query.

No reason to imagine, just look at what the soviet states got up to and adjust for modern data theory.

Been rewatching Person of Interest lately and kind of think that's Homeland Security's wet dream...

Less accountable governments? You mean governments that are significantly less armed than their populace? Only way I know to keep a government accountable...

This is a direct attack on basic free will and it is way past time that we stand up to our traitorous enemies.

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