DHS moving biometric screening system to Amazon Web Services amid debate over government tech

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(Facebook Photo / Department of Homeland Security)

The Department of Homeland Security is migrating the system it uses to search for people using biometric data to Amazon’s cloud.

The identification system is currently hosted on DHS servers but the agency is in the process of transferring it over the Amazon Web Services’ GovCloud, a group of data centers built with extra security for government clients. DHS disclosed the migration in a request for information associated with the program. The shift means that biometric data from tens of millions of people will now live on Amazon servers.

The system is a catchall for fingerprints, iris scans, images of faces, and other information collected by the agency’s various departments, like TSA, FEMA, and ICE. It allows officials to scan a database and quickly identify undocumented immigrants, terrorist suspects, and other people of interest.

The database is used by “DHS, other Federal agencies, State and local law enforcement, the intelligence community, and international partners to support counterterrorism, immigration and law enforcement, and credentialing efforts pertaining to identity services,” according to the document.

The migration comes as Amazon and other tech companies are under increased scrutiny for their relationship with governments. Civil rights groups, AI researchers, employees, and shareholders have called for Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies.

Update: DHS spokesperson Travis Edwards said the agency does not plan to use Amazon’s facial recognition software in the first two phases of the biometric data project. Asked whether DHS would implement the software later on in the process, he said, “there are no plans” to use the technology at this time.

Amazon isn’t the only tech giant facing backlash for partnering with government clients. Microsoft and Google have also come under fire for services they provide to federal agencies. While Microsoft and Amazon have said they will continue to partner with the public sector, some of the criticism got through to Google. Last year the search giant canceled a contract with the Pentagon after thousands of employees petitioned against the project.

Amazon did not respond to requests to comment for this story, which was first spotted by Nextgov.

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