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Facial recognition at all top airports by 2021, DHS docs say

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations, officer assists a passenger at a Biometric Facial Recognition station prior to boarding a flight at Houston International Airport on February 12, 2018. (Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
March 19, 2019

The faces of airport travelers will soon be scanned in a biometric verification system, a Department of Homeland Security technology expedited by President Trump in 2017 for those crossing the U.S. border.

The system will use facial recognition for identification purposes across the top 20 U.S. airports by 2021 and will include 100 percent of international travelers, including Americans, according to documents obtained last week by BuzzFeed News.

The documents explain that the facial recognition technology will be used on some 16,300 flights per week and that there are no limits as to how the airlines could utilize the data from facial recognition.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, “CBP is solving a security challenge by adding a convenience for travelers. By partnering with airports and airlines to provide a secure stand-alone system that works quickly and reliably, which they will integrate into their boarding process, CBP does not have to rebuild everything from the ground up as we drive innovation across the travel experience.”

Privacy advocates argue that according to certain documentation, Homeland Security is too eager to get this system going and in the process are ignoring the law by disregarding appropriate vetting and regulatory precautions.

Jeramie Scott, director of EPIC’s Domestic Surveillance Project said, “I think it’s important to note what the use of facial recognition [in airports] means for American citizens. It means the government, without consulting the public, a requirement by Congress, or consent from any individual, is using facial recognition to create a digital ID of millions of Americans.”

“CBP took images from the State Department that were submitted to obtain a passport and decided to use them to track travelers in and out of the country,” Scott added.

Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst, said, “Facial recognition is becoming normalized as an infrastructure for checkpoint control. It’s an extremely powerful surveillance technology that has the potential to do things never before done in human history. Yet the government is hurtling along a path towards its broad deployment — and in this case, a deployment that seems quite unjustified and unnecessary.”

However, the CBP spokesperson assures that privacy is a top priority.

“CBP is committed to protecting the privacy of all travelers and has issued several Privacy Impact Assessments related to [its biometric entry-exit program], employed strong technical security safeguards, and has limited the amount of personally identifiable information used in the transaction,” the spokesperson said.

The U.S. hasn’t imposed any laws pertaining to facial recognition because the higher courts have yet to decide if and how facial recognition relates to the Fourth Amendment in terms of search.

Facial recognition is already being utilized in 17 international airports, including Atlanta, New York City, Boston, San Jose, Chicago, and two airports in Houston. Most airlines favor the use of facial recognition.

The CBP first tested facial recognition technology in airports at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in June 2016. They say their goal is to identify foreign individuals who may be violating travel documents.

In 2017, the former facial recognition system was replaced with the Traveler Verification Service, which uses a wireless network and transmits images to the cloud, where they were stored temporarily.