Privacy advocates raised alarm on Monday as documents revealed the U.S. government is “scrambling” to deploy a facial recognition program to screen international travelers at the nation’s 20 busiest airports.
“This is opening the door to an extraordinarily more intrusive and granular level of government control, starting with where we can go and our ability to move freely about the country.”
—Edward Hasbrouck, Identity Project
The 346 pages of government records—obtained by the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News—bolster mounting concerns among privacy advocates about sweeping, secretive government surveillance as well as the pitfalls of facial recognition technology.
“Facial recognition is becoming normalized as an infrastructure for checkpoint control,” said Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst. “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.”
Stanley is just one of many privacy advocates critical of efforts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—to implement the “Biometric Entry-Exit System.”
Through the program, according to three internal documents (pdfs) from DHS, “CBP will transform the way it identifies travelers by shifting the key to unlocking a traveler’s record from biographic identifiers to biometric ones—primarily a traveler’s face.”
Specifically, according to one of the documents, “CBP will build a backend communication portal to support TSA, airport, and airline partners in their efforts to use facial images as a single biometric key for identifying and matching travelers to their identities.” The portal “will enable them to use verified biometrics for check-in, baggage drop, security checkpoints, lounge access, boarding, and other processes.”
The facial recognition program’s implementation began with a pilot program at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2016, under a law enacted by the Obama administration.
In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing DHS to expedite efforts to use biometric verification on people crossing U.S. borders.
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