CFA News

CFAnews Update – August 6, 2019

Congress Urged To Suspend DHS Use of Face Recognition Technology

In a joint letter to the House Committee on Homeland Security, several dozen consumer, privacy and civil rights groups, including CFA, urged Congress to suspend the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) use of facial recognition technology on the general public.

According to the groups, the use of face recognition technology by the DHS poses serious risks to privacy and civil liberties, threatens immigrants, broadly impacts American citizens, and has been implemented without proper safeguards in place or explicit congressional approval. “The technology is being deployed today by authoritarian governments as a tool to suppress speech and monitor critics, minorities, and everyday citizens. Congress should not permit the continued use of face recognition in the United States absent safeguards to prevent such abuses,” they wrote.

The broadest current use of face recognition technology is by the Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Entry-Exit program. Without legal authority or the opportunity for public comment, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has broadly deployed facial recognition technology at U.S. airports to all travelers, including U.S. citizens, the groups warned.

Even worse, the Biometric Entry-Exit program is flawed according to a DHS Office of the Inspector General Report. The report found that the technologies did not perform operational matching at a “satisfactory” level and that CBP could not “produce biometric matches consistently for individuals in certain passenger groups,” with the lowest biometric confirmation rate being for U.S. citizens. Additionally, Americans returning to the United States have found it difficult to opt-out of the facial recognition screening, something that is their legal right to do.

Concern regarding the use of this facial recognition technology is amplified given that CBP use of the technology extends far beyond simply verifying whether someone matches the photograph on their travel documents. CBP ultimately plans to use this technology to search biometric watch lists – raising questions about how such lists will be compiled and whether they will be the predicate for additional immigration and law enforcement activities, the groups wrote. The data collected from the Biometric Entry-Exit program will also be broadly accessible within DHS, with the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); again raising more concerns for many Americans.

With each agency having its own plans for how to utilize the technology in the future, the groups laid out five substantial risks that come with utilizing this technology:

  • The use of face recognition poses a unique threat to Constitutional rights, specifically First Amendment rights of free association and free expression.
  • The aggregation of biometric data for the use of face recognition and the broad dissemination of this data poses cybersecurity risks and increases the risk of a data breach.
  • Face recognition technology disproportionately impacts already marginalized groups due to the higher error rates for darker-skinned individuals.
  • DHS continues to expand the use of face recognition beyond what was ever authorized by Congress.
  • DHS’ use of face recognition lacks the safeguards needed to prevent over-collection, overly broad uses, widespread dissemination, and unnecessarily long retention.

“Face recognition raises a host of concerns about privacy, security, and equity,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. “It shouldn’t be deployed in government or the private sector until Congress has fully examined the issues and we have strict limits on its use, robust transparency, oversight, and accountability.”

Bill Would Improve Credit Report Accuracy

Legislation has been introduced in the House that would address serious problems in the credit reporting system and empower consumers by providing them with much greater access to, and control over, their own information. CFA joined with seven other consumer groups to send a letter last month to House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) in support of legislation that seeks to improve the accuracy of credit reports and the security of that information.

Credit reports and credit scores play a huge role in determining a consumer’s financial health, the groups wrote. Not only do they determine a consumer’s ability to obtain credit at a fair price, but they are used by many other sectors – insurance companies, landlords, and even employers. However, “despite their importance, credit reports are also full of errors, which can cost a consumer thousands of dollars in higher-priced credit, or worse yet, result in the denial of a job, insurance coverage, an apartment rental, or the ability to open a small business or buy a house,” the groups warned, citing a Federal Trade Commission study which found that 21% of consumers had verified errors in their credit reports, 13% had errors that affected their credit scores, and 5% had errors serious enough to cause them to be denied or pay more for credit.

“Trying to fix these errors can be a Kafka-esque nightmare in which the Big Three nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) –Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – consistently favor the side of the creditor or debt collector (“the furnisher”) over the consumer,” they wrote. “The irony of these problems is that credit reports consist of our information. Yet consumers are only entitled to free access to this information once a year and in certain other limited situations, despite the fact that the Big Three nationwide CRAs are making tens of millions selling our financial data. Also, consumers are not entitled to their own credit scores for free, while these same scores are being sold to creditors and others for hefty profits.”

In the letter, the groups highlighted four major ways that legislation would address these issues:

  • Fixing the broken system for credit reporting disputes through the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) ombudsman and requiring CRAs to dedicate resources and provide training to personnel who handle disputes.
  • Giving consumers the tools they need to access their rights, understand their creditworthiness, and control their financial destinies by giving consumers the right to unlimited free credit scores and reports and requiring the Big Three nationwide CRAs to create an easy-to-use tool to access this important information.
  • Improving credit reporting accuracy by requiring CRAs to conduct periodic audits and mandating that the Big Three nationwide CRAs use all nine digits of the consumer’s Social Security number when matching information from a lender to a consumer file.
  • Improving data security for credit reports by giving the CFPB the authority to write rules under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to govern the Big Three nationwide CRAs.

”The system for ensuring accurate information on credit reports and for disputing inaccurate information is in urgent need of reform and we are proud to support Chairwoman Waters and her efforts on this front. “

CFA Urges Congress to Stop Disruptive Move of USDA Research Agencies

In response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s recently announced plan to move the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) outside the Washington D.C. metro area, CFA submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee last month opposing the proposed move. “If carried out, the proposal would cause massive attrition among the ranks of the research agencies, and set back research into critical subject-matter areas, including food safety,” warned CFA Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion.

In the testimony, CFA highlighted the many ways in which these agencies are pivotal to advancing the consumer interest. For example, ERS research provided important evidence in support of reversing a recent suspension by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the agency’s practice of web-posting category establishment data for poultry processors. Pointing to ERS research demonstrating that this data improves food safety, consumer advocates were able to successfully lobby the agency to resume the webposting last year.

This is just one of many examples of how ERS and NIFA research promotes better food safety, Gremillion noted. ERS research has also helped to build understanding regarding the magnitude of the economic impacts associated with foodborne illness, demonstrated the feasibility of stronger Salmonella standards through analysis of the school lunch program, and provided a reality check against arguments that the U.S. livestock industry cannot afford to restrict antibiotic use and its contribution to antibiotic resistant infections.

Gremillion highlighted some of the glaring issues with the proposed move of the agencies stating: “…the proposed relocation of ERS and NIFA is ill-conceived and would unacceptably compromise the mission of these agencies in a lasting manner. A cost-benefit analysis informed by OMB circular guidance, a detailed budget plan, the Office of the Inspector General report on the proposed move, and a clear stakeholder engagement plan to minimize the disruptions caused by such a move, are all conspicuously absent from this plan.”

CFA requested that language be included in the FY2020 appropriations bill to stop funding from being used for the relocation or reorganization of ERS or NIFA, and that Congress withhold approval of any and all reprogramming requests related to the move.

House Committee Approves Six Consumer Product Safety Bills

Six consumer product safety bills, covering everything from crib safety to carbon monoxide poisoning, were among the bills reported out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month. CFA and other consumer advocacy groups sent a letter to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in advance of the mark-up in support of six important product safety bills.

The bills, all of which were approved on a voice vote, are:

  1. The Stop Tip-overs of Unstable, Risky Dressers on Youth Act or STURDY Act (H.R. 2211), which would direct the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to create a mandatory clothing storage unit standard to help prevent tip-overs.
  2. The Safe Sleep for Babies Act of 2019 (H.R. 3172), which would ban infant inclined sleep products, such as the recently recalled Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper and similar Kids 2 II rocking sleepers, which have been linked to the deaths of at least 50 infants.
  3. The Safe Cribs Act of 2019 (H.R. 3170), which would ban crib bumper pads, a product that has led to dozens of infant deaths from asphyxia and does not offer protection to babies.
  4. The Nicholas and Zachary Burt Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act of 2019 (H.R. 1618), which would establish a grant program, administered by the CPSC, that would encourage states to require the installation of residential carbon monoxide detectors, including for vulnerable populations.
  5. The Portable Fuel Container Safety Act of 2019 (H.R. 806), which would help prevent flame-jetting incidents through establishing a binding and enforceable standard that would require flame mitigation devices, or flame arrestors, on portable fuel containers to prevent flames from entering these containers and igniting the gases inside.
  6. The Safer Occupancy Furniture Flammability Act, or SOFFA (H.R. 2647), which would adopt a California flammability standard as a federal flammability standard to help protect against the risk of upholstered furniture fires and consumer exposure to flame retardant chemicals.

“Passage of these bills is critical to preventing death and injury to children and all consumers from the hazards posed by tipping furniture, crib bumpers, inclined sleep products, carbon monoxide, portable fuel containers and flame retardants,” stated Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel at Consumer Federation of America.

CFA will continue to monitor the status of these six important bills and advocate for their passage into law.

Safe Food Coalition Supports Disclosure of Meat and Poultry Inspection Data

In a comment letter filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this month, CFA and the Safe Food Coalition encouraged the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to disclose additional meat and poultry inspection data. The groups believe this data is necessary for the public to identify links between pathogen strains found in FSIS-regulated establishments and confirmed cases of foodborne illness.

The groups argued that, because FSIS uses public resources to collect the data, the public has a right to access the information. However, transparency isn’t the only issue. Web-posting data such as the serotype, genetic profile, and antibiotic resistance profile of each positive pathogen sample found by FSIS regulators could provide important incentives for companies to improve food safety, and foster a better understanding of food safety threats and how to address them, they argued.

The decision to post this data is not only consistent with FSIS’s previous January 2015 notice, but it is also supported by outside experts, including the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection, which endorsed a more open disclosure policy in 2014, and the National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC), which identified “strong arguments supporting public release of establishment-specific FSIS data, especially data that are subject to release under the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act].”

The importance of the data was highlighted by two recent outbreaks—one linked to Salmonella Reading in raw turkey and another linked to Salmonella Infantis in raw chicken—which involved outbreak strains that were found in multiple slaughter establishments. Those findings suggest the need for interventions far back in the production chain, possibly at one of the two companies that supply most of the breeding stock for poultry, or at a large feed mill. They also point to the need for slaughter establishments to apply greater scrutiny to their supply lines, and to take preventative steps when serotype, genetic or AMR data indicate that they are sending out product that harbors a virulent pathogen strain, the groups wrote.

Compelling evidence indicates that greater transparency leads to food safety improvements, they argued. USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) has found a “strong correlation” between the availability of this information and poultry processors’ success in meeting food safety goals. According to ERS, web-posting data provides a “tool for encouraging compliance with food safety” that does not “require costly regulatory oversight and labor devoted to compliance,” but rather creates a market where “buyers determine the appropriate level of food safety and costs.”

“FSIS should strive to do as much as possible to help meat and poultry markets operate more efficiently, with the best food safety information possible,” stated CFA Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion. “We encourage the agency to continue to follow through on its 2015 data release plan by releasing inspection and enforcement data such as regulations verified and compliance status for each verified regulation; whether Food Safety Assessments are performed and why; and humane handling data. Publishing this data will have important public health benefits and spur useful analyses by outside stakeholders,” he added.