Unexpected Shift in Face Recognition Policy

Unexpected Shift in Face Recognition Policy

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations, officers take biometric photos of passengers prior to boarding a flight at Houston International Airport on February 12, 2018. Photographer: Donna Burton

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The US Department of Homeland Security has confirmed it will not expand face recognition scans to U.S. citizens arriving and departing the country. Earlier, the agency proposed making the scans for citizens mandatory.

In November, the Trump administration proposed mandatory use of facial recognition technology on American citizens at U.S. airports when they arrive from or depart to international destinations.

However, officials from Homeland Security, whose responsibility is border protection and immigration checks, have been stepping back from the plan, in a move that reveals a deep and increasing discomfort with the ways in which this largely unregulated technology is being deployed. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been testing facial recognition technology in passenger lanes at four ports of entry along the southern U.S. border, and at around 20 international airports around the country in partnership with private airlines, according to rollcall.com. Currently, U.S. citizens can opt out of the facial scan, but the proposed rule appeared to have eliminated that option. 

The CBP’s move to expand the use of facial recognition came despite significant concerns about the technology already raised by lawmakers of both parties, civil rights groups and technology companies, all of whom have called for a federal law governing the use of the technology.

Privacy advocates continue to be skeptical of the agency’s intentions despite its latest announcement. CBP intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding U.S. citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published in the spring of 2020.

As it is currently implemented in airports, passengers pause to have their photos captured, which are then compared with ones in the network of databases CBP has access to. 

U.S. citizens can inform a CBP officer if they want to opt out. Even if U.S. citizens don’t opt out, their images are deleted within 12 hours anyway. 

The quest for a more advanced system to track travelers entering and leaving the United States stemmed from the 9/11 commission’s report, which called for a biometric-based system. The proposal was codified in law by Congress in 2004. But the Congress did not expressly authorize the deployment of facial recognition technology, which didn’t exist back then.