Customs and Border Protection (CBP) evidently doesn’t need Congress to begin using facial recognition of United States citizens.
Officials at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and Logan International Airport in Boston earlier this week began to scan faces of U.S. citizens and other passengers on specific flights. Congress has nine times passed legislation authorizing the use of biometric technology on non-U.S. citizens as a way of verifying when foreign nationals enter and exit the country, but they’ve never authorized such legislation for citizens, according to surveillance law experts.
Call it surveillance creep.
“It’s disconcerting,” said Harrison Rudolph, a law fellow at Georgetown University who focuses on the intersection of technology and legal policy. “There’s reason to think this rollout is only just beginning, and that more airports are going to start deploying, or more airlines are going to be deploying facial recognition at the boarding gate.”
In its announcement for Houston, CBP wrote that photos of U.S. citizens successfully matched to a passport photo are “automatically determined to be out of scope for biometric exit purposes and the photo is discarded after a short period of time.” The agency then offered its assurances that its officials are committed to privacy.
There’s not a lot stopping CBP from sharing those photos with other law enforcement.
Despite that commitment, there’s not a lot stopping CBP from sharing those photos with other law enforcement. The agency hasn’t publicized how, why, and whether it shares photos taken by facial recognition technology, which leaves the door open to a host of dystopian possibilities.
Perhaps faces will be compared with images of people on the list of those who aren’t allowed to fly in the United States, for example.
Citizens and other normal travelers to the United States have for years had headaches induced by the no-fly list because their names match or are similar to a name of a person the government is watching. Will people with facial structures similar to those on the no-fly list have the same problem?
They might, even if their faces aren’t that similar. A host of evidence suggests facial recognition technology is more likely to misidentify women, children and black people than white men, which could result, at the very least, in unnecessary delays for those groups of people.
President Donald Trump’s executive order issued on March 6 detailed plans to “expedite” a biometric exit plan for “in-scope travelers to the United States.” There’s reason to debate what that means in and of itself, but the CBP seems to already have moved beyond the scope of the order by including American citizens in its facial recognition scans.